My pantry is small and I carefully curate the kitchen necessities that fill it. You won’t be surprised to find things like olive oil, pecans, quality balsamic vinegar, and cans of fire-roasted diced tomatoes on my shelves, but the presence of country ham may be a bit unexpected. After all, with so many varieties of cured meats, it seems strange to single out this Southern favorite as mandatory.
I admit it hasn’t always held a place of honor on my shelves. Growing up, I saw it only on holidays. Then my father would cook slices of country ham in a hot skillet before setting them aside to make red eye gravy with a cup of coffee and the leftover drippings.
A love of sweet potato biscuits, made even better with a slice of seared country ham and honey mustard, meant country ham began showing up a little more frequently on my table.
Then last year I found myself without pancetta during the development of a recipe for sweet potato ravioli. There, wedged between a box of penne and a bag of lentils (two other pantry essentials), was country ham.
For those of you not familiar with Country Ham, it’s ham dry-cured in a mixture of salt, sugar, and spices for several days before being slowly smoked and then aged for several months to a couple of years. The resulting meat is firm and salty and quite irresistible.
Just like its better-known cousin prosciutto, the making of country ham is an artisanal process and price-points vary dramatically depending upon the ham, the process, and the time involved. I aspire to one day have an entire country ham hanging in my pantry, but for now I content myself with the pre-soaked (to remove some of the salt) and pre-cooked slices that are easily acquired and quite affordable at my local grocery store.
And since using it in place of pancetta for my ravioli, country ham has become a much larger player in my kitchen. It makes a wonderful counterpoint to sweeter items such as sweet potatoes or fall squash and is a flavorful addition to soups and stews such as this split pea soup. Finely chopped and briefly sautéed, its distinct pork flavor pairs perfectly with the homey, earthy taste of split peas to make a hearty soup to enjoy this fall and winter. One bite and I think you’ll agree that country ham deserves a place in your pantry. Happy cooking!
Split Pea Soup with Country Ham and Corn Bread Croutons – Printer Friendly Recipe
If you’ve never tried country ham, you’ll figure out quickly that it’s wonderfully salty. While its flavor is one of the things that make this soup irresistible, it’s best to use homemade chicken stock in this recipe and add salt to taste at the end of cooking to avoid a too salty soup. If using store-bought stock, I recommend less-sodium stock for best results.
The cornbread croutons make a nice addition to this hearty soup. You only need about 2 cups of croutons so this is a great use for leftover cornbread.
For the Split Pea Soup:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
¼ lb chopped country ham
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb dried split peas, picked over and rinsed
6 cups homemade or less-sodium chicken broth
1 to 2 cups water (only if needed)
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the croutons:
2 cups cornbread (my healthy recipe for skillet cornbread is below), cut into ½-inch cubes
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and then the onion, carrot, and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until vegetables soften. Add the country ham and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add the dried split peas and stir to combine the ingredients. Add the chicken stock, bay leaf and thyme sprig and bring the soup to a boil. Stir the soup and then reduce the heat so the soup is at a simmer.
Simmer for 45 minutes or until split peas become tender. If needed, add water, a cup at a time, to the soup while it cooks.
While the soup is simmering, spread the cornbread cubes on a small baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and let cool.
When ready to serve, season the soup to taste with salt and pepper and divide between bowls. Garnish with cornbread croutons. Enjoy!
Skillet Cornbread – Printer Friendly Recipe
I teach a Cooking Healthy on a Budget cooking class once a month at my local YWCA for their Women in Transition program. I developed this cornbread recipe, which uses olive oil instead of butter, for that class. It’s a great accompaniment to any meal and makes excellent croutons.
1 ¼ cup plain yellow cornmeal (not self rising)
1 ¼ cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk, honey, eggs, and olive oil in a medium bowl.
Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined (don’t over mix). Pour the batter into the cast-iron skillet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until brown around the edges and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in the skillet before serving.