The Best Split Pea Soup

Split pea soup steaming hot.

It was a chilly autumn day sixteen or seventeen years ago. I was thirteen or fourteen and had been doing yard work for an older French Canadian couple in my area to make a little spending money. I would pick weeds, move wood piles, help the husband build fences, move dirt piles, and do pretty much anything that required a strong young back. In return they would pay me around $15 and feed me lunch. At the time, this was a pretty good deal. On this particular day they fed me something that changed my perspective on food entirely and forever.

As I mentioned, it was pretty chilly out. I had been working all morning doing odd jobs around the yard. By noon I had a hollow nagging feeling in my stomach. The wife, who’s name I have long forgotten, called me in for lunch. I don’t remember what their kitchen looked like, or their house for that matter. I wish I could say I remembered the aroma when I first stepped in from the cold, but I can’t say that either. What I do remember is sitting at their small kitchen table, the husband to my right, and the wife to my left. As I sat in my place at the table, a bowl of green slop was placed in front of me. In an effort not to appear rude I hid my initial disgust as best I could. Why would this nice old French Canadian couple feed me green slop that more resembled what I assumed prison food looked like than anything I had eaten before? Was I not working hard enough and being punished? Did I do something wrong? I remember dreading the first bite. Fearing it even. Alas, my manners and hunger took hold as I dipped my spoon into the pile of green mush that was to be my dinner.

Have you ever been confused, angered, excited, surprised, and elated at a dish all at the  same time? I have. I remember very clearly as that initial spoon not-so-full passed my lips and hit my tongue. All my preconceived notions were gone in an instant. This green slop was not prison food. I was not being punished for doing poor work. I was being thanked. I was being given something special, a gift given from the heart. The first spoon not-so-full was followed quickly by a second spoon very full, then a third, then a fourth. I had never tasted anything like what I was tasting in that moment. It was spicy, smokey, salty, and delicious. I ate it as fast as I could, not wanting it to ever stop. I ate a second bowl, and a third. If I had had room, I would have eaten the whole pot. I think the older couple was surprised I like it so much, but I could see that they were happy.

Almost anyone who has ever had split pea soup will be reading this and think that I am crazy. How can something so basic, so cheap, so green, be so good? Split pea soup is poor food, it is boring. I will say that I have had some split pea soups that left much to be desired. I have also had, like the one I described above, truly amazing split pea soups. It is like any dish. If made with love and care, it can be amazing.

It wasn’t actually until years later that I even realized what I had eaten that day. I know this sounds absurd. The truth is, I was so amazed by the soup the first time I ate it that I didn’t even think to ask what it was. I spent years and years longingly remembering this dish I had had as an adolescent boy until one day, in my early twenties it hit me. I don’t remember how, when or why, I just remember it hitting me like a tonne of bricks. As soon as I knew what it was I made it at home. Drawing on my memories of that day to match the taste of my own soup to the one I had had. The one I made wasn’t perfect, but after a few more attempts I nailed the recipe. It was everything I had been looking for. The first spoonful thrust me back to that point in time in my life. It was as though I was tasting it again for the first time.

This dish is close to my heart. It evokes in me feelings which can only come form a home cooked meal made with love. It’s not something that can be bought, it must be given. Giving someone the gift of a truly good meal, no matter how simple, is one of the greatest things we can ever give. A meal is never just a meal. It is a place in time, it is love, it is friendship, it is comfort, and safety.

I’m going to share this dish with you in the hopes that you will share it with someone else. This is not a Saturday night with a glass of wine kind of dish. This is a rainy, cold, Sunday afternoon kind of dish. It is simple, hearty, cheap to make, and inexplicably delicious. Show someone you care for them, and you care for what they are doing for you. Give them memories, happiness, and love. Give them split pea soup.


Split Pea Soup Recipe

Ingredients:

Stock

  • 1 smoked ham hock (available at almost any butcher usually costs around $3)
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 celery stock
  • 2 medium onion
  • 1 leek
  • 2 bay leaves
  • water to cover

Soup

  • 2 L ham hock stock
  • 1/2 bag of a 900g bag of green split peas (450g) (picked through for any brown or black ones)
  • 2 medium onions (peeled and diced)
  • 2 medium carrots (peeled and diced)
  • 2 stocks celery (diced)
  • 1 potato (peeled and diced)
  • 2 cloves of garlic (peeled and finely chopped)
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (less if you don’t like spicy)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Stock

Peel the onions and rough chop them the carrot, celery and leek. Place in a pot with the ham hock and bay leaves. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer for 1 hour 30 minutes. Strain and reserve the liquid. Cut the meat off the bone, dice, and set aside.

Whole smoked ham hock.Ham hock in a pot with mire poix awaiting water.

Cut mire poix waiting for the pot.Smoked ham hock stock cooking.

Soup

In a large pot over medium heat sautée the onions until they start to slightly brown. Add the carrot and celery and sautée until they start to release their juices. Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the split peas, and the cayenne and cook for about two minutes stirring constantly. Add the stock and turn up the heat (you want the liquid to be about 4 cm above the peas, if needed add some water, or more stock). Once the pot comes to a boil reduce heat to a low simmer and cover stirring occasionally. After 30 minutes add your potatoes and the ham hock meat. Cook for another half hour. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. The peas should be tender and the potatoes cooked through. Serve with buttered bread. 

Onions being browned in a dutch oven.Carrots, onion, and celery cooking in a dutch oven.A pot with cooking vegetables, and split peas.Split pea soup cooking in a dutch oven.


The left over ham bone and skin from the ham hock need not be discarded. Let them cool, put them in a freezer bag and freeze them. There is still a lot of flavour in both the bone and the skin. Save them until you want to make another soup, baked beans, or even if you just want to flavour the water you cook potatoes, rice, or peas in.

I hope that you make this soup for someone you love when they really need it. It will fill and nourish their stomachs, their heart, and their soul.

A bowl showing the after effects of split pea soup.

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About Chef Benjamin Kelly

I have spent the last fifteen years cooking professionally and gaining an education in kitchens all across the country culminating in achieving my "Red Seal Cook" status. I have cooked for the governor general, a lieutenant governor, heads of major political parties, actors, musicians, professional athletes, and countless satisfied customers. Through all this the most important lessons I have learned are to be prepared and to keep it simple. My love of food comes from my mother. Some of the first and fondest memories I have are of cooking at my mothers side. She and I, would spend snowy winter days making tea biscuits and corn chowder, shepherd's pie, goulash, baked beans and oatmeal bread, or any number of other things. In the fall we would make pickles and preserves and forage for wild berries and mushrooms in the woods around our house. Our little farm supplied us with vegetables, herbs and meat in the form of chicken and turkey as well as their eggs. Most of the food we ate that we didn't grow came from other farms in our area, farmers who we knew by name. Growing up so close to where my food was coming from I gained a deep respect for the things we eat. That respect is something that I still carry with me. The lessons I learned at my mothers side, and on our little farm have stayed with me. I hold on to the memories, beliefs, and values. It is those things that have made me who I am today.
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