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Several years ago, I purchased a wonderful cookbook, Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals. The book’s co-author, chef Tom Valenti, is acclaimed in the food world for his two New York City restaurants, Ouest and ‘Cesca; the praise of such redoubtable food critics as Ruth Reichl and Gael Greene; being named one of the country’s “Ten Best Chefs” by Food & Wine magazine; and his four cookbooks, to list just a few reasons. Chef Valenti is also a humanitarian and philanthropist—CNN deemed him a “national hero” for establishing Windows of Hope, a nonprofit organization that provided aid to the families of food-service workers killed during the World Trade Center attack on September 11.

He’s also one heck of a nice guy.

In my kitchen, the advent of autumn is meaningless unless I prepare Chef Valenti’s Ham Hock and Split Pea Soup to herald its arrival, and I make it religiously throughout the winter. Indeed, the very act of creating this soup is akin to a religious act for me—using my chef’s knife to render the vegetables into the “small dice” he requires, sautéeing the aromatic ingredients, tossing the fragrant marjoram into the pot…the entire process is a comforting series of rituals, and the result yields one of my favorite comfort foods. I wanted to share the recipe with you here, but not without his permission. I sent my request to the e-mail address on the website for Ouest, and then turned my attention to the business of downloading the iOS5 software for my iPhone—a process that took about two hours. When things were back up and running, I rather hoped to see an e-mail reply from one of Chef Valenti’s employees, but the e-mail cupboard was bare. What I did notice, however, was a voice message alerting me to a call I’d missed while my iPhone was out-of-pocket. Chef Tom Valenti took the time to telephone me, leaving a message giving me his permission to publish the recipe on The Midlife Second Wife.

Yes. A heck of a nice guy. And one phenomenal chef with a great recipe for split pea soup. I like to serve this with a crusty French baguette and a hearty cheddar cheese. Enjoy!

by Tom Valenti and Andrew Friedman
from Tom Valenti’s Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals
(Scribner, 2003)

Serves 6

2 cups green split peas, picked through, small stones discarded
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 medium Spanish onion, peeled and cut into small dice
1 stalk celery, cut into small dice
Coarse salt (I use Kosher salt)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs marjoram or thyme
2 quarts store-bought, reduced-sodium vegetable or chicken broth, homemade   Vegetable or Chicken Stock (page 244 of Valenti’s book), or a combination.
2 pounds smoked ham hocks
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves or Garlic Croutons (page 233 of Valenti’s book), optional

1. Put the split peas in a bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 (see note).
5. While the 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.
6. When the soup is done, use tongs or a spoon to remove and discard the bay leaf and marjoram springs. 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.
7. To serve, ladle the 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.

Tom Valenti note:
A lot of American cooks are unfamiliar with ham hocks, even though they’re a staple in the South. I first discovered them as a child when my grandmother took me along on her excursions to the supermarket. While she stood talking to the butcher, my eye would wander over to the refrigerated meats section. For the longest time, I didn’t even ask what these funny-looking, prewrapped, precooked, brown things were, but in time I learned that they were smoked ham hocks. They’ve become one of my favorite incarnations of pork. They’re user-friendly and have great utility. They also give off a lot of natural gelatin, which acts as a subtle thickening agent, adding body to soups
and sauces.

Recipe © 2003 Tom Valenti. All rights reserved.

A Note About Garlic From TMSW:
It’s time that we had a talk here on the blog about garlic. I’ve been meaning to bring this up for some while. It’s the rare recipe in our household that doesn’t call for garlic, and not just because I’m Lebanese and Sicilian. I love everything about cooking with garlic: the way it flavors a dish, its aromatic properties, and the little ritual I perform each time I use it, which is what I want to discuss with you. (No. It has nothing to do with halitosis. If you like, that’s an issue we can address when I introduce a beauty and grooming department on the blog.)

Back in the seventies, before I was a YoungLifeFirstWife, I worked with a woman who, by day, was a court stenographer. But by night, she was an amateur gourmet cook—a fabulous one. Although I was barely 20, she must have seen some sort of cooking glimmer in my eye, for she began sharing some of her recipes with me. A few of them called for garlic, and it was at this juncture that she shared with me her secret for avoiding the heartburn that people sometimes suffer after ingesting the pungent, herbal bulb

“Take your garlic clove and slice it lengthwise down the middle,” Aldona advised. “You’ll see a pale green shoot, which is actually the root of the allium.” (A highly intellectual cook, she never missed an opportunity to further my education.)

“Pry this slender root out of each half of the garlic and throw it away. That root is the source of heartburn. Do this, and you’ll never have an unfortunate reaction to eating food prepared with garlic.”

I was far too young and inexperienced to know that my future would contain recipes calling for either the entire head of garlic, or whole cloves—unminced, unchopped, or unpressed. For recipes such as those, I throw caution to the winds. I never have had a case of heartburn from eating garlic-infused dishes, either, so I’m thinking that I fortified my system all these years—sort of like creating an allium armor—by removing the root at every reasonable opportunity.