I was taken aback when Gavin told me he didn't know what lentils were.
I told him they looked like split peas.
"Split peas?" he said incredulously, "Like peas, but cut in half?"
When he put it like that it did sound sort of stupid. Still, I had a hard time believing that a cosmopolitan fellow like Gavin had never encountered lentils, split peas, or, as it turned out, dal.
Lentils and split peas are so cheap and common in the U.S. that they are considered sort of boring. Most U.S. citizens wouldn't even consider eating split pea soup without a luxurious helping of smoked ham, and the Internet teems with lentil soup recipes--anything to give the old standby a new life. If I had to rate types of lentils and split peas by their cachet, brown lentils and green split peas would be at the bottom of the barrel while red lentils, lentils du Puy (French lentils), or some fancy dal would be at the top.
Split pea soup was one of the first recipes I taught myself--I used to soak my rock-hard homemade whole wheat bread in it so that the bread would soften enough for me to be able to chew it. I don't really make it anymore because I came to think of it as beginner's fare, but when I considered it anew through Gavin's eyes, split pea soup became an all-American standard. So tonight I decided to whip some up.
As I expected, most of my cookbooks have at least 2 recipes for split-pea soup, but none of them were what I wanted. I had limited ingredients and limited patience for messing around. Several cookbooks suggested cooking the split peas in liquid separately and adding sautéed vegetables at the end; I didn't feel like washing two pots and besides, split pea soup is hearty enough without adding a bunch of stuff to it. Mark Bittman suggested just cooking the split peas in broth and serving with salt and pepper; I thought that would result in a rather overwhelming flavor. In the end, I cooked the split peas in half water and half broth (Imagine's No-Chicken Broth as usual), and then added the Tassajara cookbook's suggestion of fresh pepper, cumin, and fresh squeezed lemon juice at the end. It actually turned out really well, and I didn't even have to get any measuring spoons dirty.
The weird thing that happened was that I bought some "organic" green split peas from Harris Teeter, a supermarket in North Carolina, and there was all this white twisted stuff in there. At first I thought it was bits of sea shells—!!!—but in the end George and I agreed it must be shriveled up split peas skins. Luckily they floated to the top of the pot when I poured water in. The other weird occurrence was that after rinsing the peas, the water was still soapy looking. I had to wash the split peas thoroughly 5 times to get the soap look out. I've never had this experience with split peas before; it was a huge bother.
Cumin turned out to be a super-strong spice. Restrain yourself.
Simple Split Pea Soup
2 cups green split peas, thoroughly washed
4 cups water
4 cups No Chicken Broth (by Imagine)
a little bit of cumin to taste (about 1 tsp.)
a few grates of fresh black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
2 bay leaves
In a pot mix split peas, water, brother, and bay leaves. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer for about an hour and half until the split peas have become one with the broth. Turn off the heat. Take out the bay leaves. Add cumin, pepper, and lemon juice. Serve hot with a spoon and big helping of good old American love.
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