Polish Yellow Pea Soup
When we speak of celery in the United States, we are generally thinking of those thick, juicy, crisp-but-stringy stalks with a flourish of leaves on the top. While that’s the most common form of celery here, it is not the only variety.
Chinese celery, which is closer in form to wild celery, has skinny, hollow stalks, a much stronger flavor, and is almost never eaten raw, but is rather used to add flavor to cooked dishes. The Italians differentiate between cooking celery and eating celery, the eating variety being the one we know best, and the cooking variety actually just being the skinny, strong-flavored wild celery.
Then there is the homely but wonderful variety known as celeriac. Celeriac is not grown for its stalks, but rather for its large, gnarly, brown, turnip-like root. You may see it identified as celery root, which is not inaccurate, but it is not the root of the kind of celery you’re seeing on crudité platters.
Celery appears to have originated in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The Romans used it to decorate tombs and wove it into wreaths that were supposed to ward off hangovers, but they also ate it. While the Romans did develop cultivated celery (though, like modern Italians, they still used the wild celery for cooking), the techniques for cultivation seem to have vanished with the collapse of the empire. It was not until the Middle Ages that celery was again being cultivated, this time in France. However, celeriac was not developed until the Renaissance.
Because celeriac/celery root is not a commonly used vegetable in the US, it can be a bit pricey—though it’s usually a good bit cheaper if you buy it at an ethnic store that features Eastern European foods, because celeriac is quite popular in Europe. And it deserves to be popular. Boiled and puréed, it offers a gentle, silken, subtly celery-flavored, low-carb alternative to mashed potatoes. In soups, it contributes the flavor of celery without the strings, and with a lovely mouth-feel that is more velvety than cooked celery. I love it.
The recipe below is for a soup that is a national favorite in Poland. As with most venerable recipes, there are myriad variations. About the only things all seem to have in common are split yellow peas (the groch in grochówka), celeriac, and some sort of smoked pork product (ham, slab bacon, salt pork, Polish sausage, or some combination of these). Most versions also include onion or leek and garlic. Some versions have carrots, some have potatoes, some have both, some have barley instead of potatoes, and some include parsnips. In other words, you have some leeway to customize this, based on what you have on hand. It is a thick, hearty, warming soup that freezes well. With the traditional accompaniments of rye bread and butter, it makes a good meal. Enjoy.
(Polish Yellow Pea Soup)
1-pound bag yellow split peas
12 oz. very meaty salt pork
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. celeriac (about ½ a large knob), cubed
1 bay leaf
8 cups water
2 large red potatoes, cubed
1 tsp. dried marjoram
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cover the split peas with water and leave them to soak overnight. If you forget to set them out, cover with hot water and allow them to soak for at least a couple of hours. When ready to make soup, drain and rinse the peas.
In a large stockpot, fry the salt pork until it is beginning to brown and has given up a good bit of fat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook gently for five minutes. Add the celeriac, and cook for an additional five minutes, or until the onions just begin to take on a bit of color.
Add the peas and bay leaf to the vegetables in the pot. Add eight cups water, and bring to the boil. Skim any foam that rises to the surface. Reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Add the potatoes, marjoram, and black pepper to taste, and simmer for an additional 20 minutes, or until the potato is soft and peas have pretty much dissolved. Toward the end, stir frequently, to avoid scorching the soup. If the simmer has been too vigorous, and the soup appears to be turning into a solid, add a bit more water. Taste for seasoning, adding pepper as needed (with salt pork, it’s unlikely you’ll need to add salt).
Just in case you can’t find really meaty salt pork, or would like other options, there are some alternate approaches to preparing this dish. You could use two or three strips of regular bacon to render fat for sautéing the veggies, and then save the bacon strips to crumble over the soup before serving. Without the salt pork in the water, you’ll need to use either a meaty ham bone or, if you have no such bone, 8 cups of ham-flavored broth. (They do actually produce ham bouillon powder.) Add the bone to the water before you start boiling, or use the ham broth instead of water. That will flavor your broth, but to add some meat to the finished product, add a generous cup of ham cut into bite-size pieces, or you could slice and brown a pound of kielbasa. Add this when you add the potatoes. No matter which variation you pick, it will still be authentic!