Split peas are halved peas, which is obvious. They are also dried peas, which is probably, when you think about it, just as obvious. I mean, have you ever tried to cut a fresh pea in half? Split peas and ham hocks are meant to go together, so much so that a minimum of supporting ingredients are called for to flesh them out into a satisfying soup.
Most people think of split pea soup as a thick-as-can-be affair, and this is how I like it, but it doesn’t need to be. In fact, a thinner version is delicious and more surprising. If you like, add a bit more liquid to thin the soup, and see what you think. (If unsure, you can add some to a cupful of soup at the end and, if you approve, stir more into the pot.)–Tom Valenti
Put the split peas in a bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the carrot, onion, and celery; season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar; and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.
Drain the split peas and add them to the pot. Add the bay leaf, marjoram, broth, and ham hocks. Give a good stir and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat, continuing to stir to keep the peas from scorching. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 1 hour.
Use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the ham hocks from the pot. Set them aside on a plate. Cook the soup for 30 minutes longer, or until the peas and other vegetables have completely broken down and the soup has thickened considerably. If it becomes too thick, add more stock or water.
While the split pea soup is simmering, and as soon as the ham hocks have cooled enough to work with, use your hands to remove the meat from the bones, shredding it as you work. There won’t be a lot of it, but what is there is very flavorful. Set the meat aside.
When the pea soup is done, use tongs or a spoon to remove and discard the bay leaf and marjoram sprigs. Taste and correct seasoning, bearing in mind that the bits of ham are salty. Add the reserved ham to the pot. If not serving immediately, let cool, cover, and refrigerate for a few days or freeze for up to 1 month. Reheat before proceeding.
To serve, ladle the split pea soup into individual bowls and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Scatter some thyme leaves over each serving, if desired, or float a garlic crouton on top of each bowl.
Make the croutons
Melt the butter in a wide, deep saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute to soften it and infuse the butter with its flavor.
Add the bread to the pan and cook, tossing frequently, until the bread is crisp and golden brown 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Use at once, or let cool and keep at room temperature for up to 6 hours.
This soup is perfect for a cold winter night, however, it’s easy enough to make after work for a taste meal. A ham hock shouldn’t be too hard to find, just ask your butcher at the grocery store. The ham is a delicious addition to this recipe and add extra saltiness and heartiness to the already full-bodied soup. If you can’t locate a ham hock, or you have leftover Christmas ham, this is a great way to use it up. Just cube the ham instead of pulling off the hock. This recipe is one that is a culinary surprise because just when you think that it can’t be done in the time is says, it turns out a perfect soup. Also, it freezes well and makes fantastic leftovers, if it isn’t devoured the first time around!