I’m still bathing in some of the glow of having spent a weekend in beautiful Amsterdam recently and that was my inspiration for this soup I made for lunch today. It’s become a ritual that when I arrive in the city, usually late morning, I check into my hotel, leave my bag, and head straight to Cafe ‘t Smalle for lunch.
And once there, I always order their Pea & Ham Soup and a small beer – local Heineken.
The soup is made from dried green split peas (it’s not a fresh pea soup). It traditionally comes with rye (often pumpernickel) bread and thinly sliced ham. Pea & Ham Soup is such a classic dish in Amsterdam, you’ll see it everywhere – on menus and written on boards outside cafés. However, I think Cafe ‘t Smalle’s is particularly good and so I like to go there; it’s also a favourite cafe, a bit on the tourist trail and near the Anne Frank House, but it’s a fame that hasn’t gone to its head and it always feels down to earth and local, and everyone is friendly and relaxed. Like a lot of traditional ‘cafés’ in Amsterdam, it feels more like a pub and you might go there just for a drink and not necessarily to eat.
The soup is very Dutch in the sense that it’s hearty, simple fare. The Dutch aren’t showy people and neither is their food. This is the kind of soup that makes a meal – it’s far too heavy to have as a starter to a meal – and is nourishing but cheap to make. Inevitably, recipes vary. It’s a winter soup and made with vegetables in season – onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, often celeriac too, or leeks. The ham is usually a piece of hock that’s cooked with the soup, then the meat pulled from the bone at the end. It’s generally served very thick – you could almost stand your spoon up in it. It might be blended smooth or simply mashed or served just as it is. When making it, the choice is yours. I went for a halfway compromise – I blended half the mixture at the end and mixed it all together so I got a thick creamy base with still recognisable pieces of vegetable and meat. My recipe is just a guideline so do make it to your own preferences.
I wasn’t planning on buying a ham hock so I decided to use some streaky bacon instead. I put it in at the beginning of the cooking to get the most from the flavour. I couldn’t buy green split peas either (despite quite a search locally) so settled for yellow split peas. Neither did I have stock to hand and rather than using just water, I’ve taken to putting some miso into soups, mainly because I’m not keen on stock cubes (other than homemade!). I keep a jar of miso paste in the fridge and mix a teaspoon with some hot water before adding to the soup.
I didn’t have rye bread either so settled for some of a day-old baguette from Paul French bakery which I lightly toasted. But, not to entirely lose the Amsterdam theme, I did have some wonderful 3-year-old Gouda that I’d bought in my favourite cheese shop in Amsterdam – Tromp.
Yellow Split Pea & Bacon Soup
- 6 rashers unsmoked streaky bacon
- a little (about 2-3 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion
- 2 sticks celery – plus leaves if there are some, reserving a few for garnish
- 2 carrots
- 1 large potato
- 1 mug (250g) yellow split peas
- 1 fat clove garlic
- a few sprigs fresh thyme (or dried will do)
- 3 mugs stock, water or miso (see above)
- sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
Cut the bacon into slices (about 1.5cm thick) and put with the oil into a large pan. Fry over a medium heat until coloured but not brown.
Chop all the vegetables into smallish (about 1.5cm) cubes. Try to keep them uniform if you’re not planning to blend the whole soup at the end. Add them to the bacon, stir well and continue cooking until the vegetables take on a bit of colour but aren’t browned. Add the yellow split peas.
Roughly chop any celery leaves you have and add them to the vegetables with the thyme and a crushed clove of garlic. Grate in some black pepper but wait to add salt at the end. It’s best to not add salt to dried beans and pulses at the beginning of cooking as it inhibits their ability to soften. It’s not so important with split peas or small lentils but remember you’ve added bacon, so there will be some salt anyway.
Give it a good stir to mix together and then add the stock, water or miso.
Bring to the boil and spoon off any scum that rises to the top. Lower the heat and allow the soup to simmer for about an hour, or until the split peas are tender. Then I blended half the mixture and put it back in with the unblended half. Check seasoning.
It was a perfect lunch for a cold winter’s day: some gorgeous old Gouda and a thick, hearty and delicious soup.
I added some chopped celery leaves and a chopped rasher of crispy bacon as garnish for the soup at the end.
It wasn’t quite what I have in Amsterdam but that didn’t matter because it was still very good indeed. I had it for lunch but it would make a great midweek family supper. And as always with soups, I made plenty so I can freeze portions to enjoy another day.