Dried peas are a staple in Lancashire, and they used to be a staple in other parts of the country too. Before the arrival of potatoes from the New World, they formed the basis of diet for much of the population. They could not afford much meat, and peas were easy to grow on a small plot of land. Peas could also be easily dried and so preserved for use in winter.
Here we are talking not of "garden peas", which are these days mostly bought frozen, but the larger "field peas", often referred to as "marrowfat peas".
Proper Pea Soup and Mushy Peas are closely related, differing mostly in the amount of liquid used.
I once heard a prominent restaurant critic being completely unfamiliar with proper mushy peas; he thought that the term referred to "petit pois" mashed into a paste.
This soup uses a ham pestle for extra flavour. This is a cheap cut, the narrow end cut off the more expensive ham. Other names for it include ham shank, ham hock and ham knuckle.
This is a slow-cooked dish.
- 1 Ham pestle
- 2lb Dried marrowfat peas
- 1 tsp Bicarbonate of soda
- 1 Onion, finely chopped
- Salt to taste
You will also need a large pan to cook it in - big enough to hold the pestle. We use a large cast-iron pot.
All quantities and cooking times are approximate.
- Put the peas in the cooking pot and cover with boiling water. Put plenty in, because the peas will swell (you can top up later if the peas break surface).
- Add the bicarbonate of soda, which helps the peas soften. If you don't have any, just leave the peas longer.
- Leave for at least three hours, then drain.
- Add the pestle and the onion to the pan.
- Add water. You probably won't be able to cover the pestle fully.
- Bring to the boil and then simmer for half an hour. Stir occasionally.
- Turn the pestle over so both sides get cooked.
- Simmer until peas are soft - about another half hour. Stir occasionally.
- Remove the ham pestle.
- Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary. Some pestles can be salty, so do not add any salt before this point.
- If you want "Pea and Ham" soup, shred some of the meat from the pestle and add it to the soup.
- Add water to get the consistency you want, and cook for a few minutes more.
There is quite a bit of good meat on a ham pestle, so you end up with good ham for sandwiches as well as a really hearty soup. As with any soup, it is a good policy to make a large quantity, then freeze some in containers so that you can have a warm meal at short notice.
Black peas (also known as pigeon peas and carlin peas) are cooked in a similar fashion.