"Irrland’s" split pea and lentil soup

New York on the Edge, part 1

"Irrland's" split pea and lentil soup

On the edge of Manhattan, in the Far West Village, sits an impressive brick building that overlooks the Hudson River. Once the home of Bell Laboratories – if you like television or movies, you have this company to thank for the research on those inventions – the building was renovated and repurposed in the 1960s to provide affordable housing to 384 artists and their families.

Westbeth Artists’ Housing, actually a complex of 13 buildings, is named for two of the streets bordering the block. It has been home to artists, dancers, actors, writers, musicians and film makers since its opening in 1970, and also houses gallery spaces, a theater, The New School for Drama, and The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. Last but not least, you’ll also find the Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, which is the first LGBT synagogue in New York !

"Irrland's" split pea and lentil soup

Food first

During my recent trip to New York, Alison Armstrong, who I met in 2008, invited me up to her Westbeth apartment for tea and to talk about art, books, cooking, and teaching. When I reached Alison’s apartment on the 8th floor, she and her cat, Felix Brutus, greeted me at the door. As I shrugged out of my warmest winter coat, Mendelssohn’s Overture in E major emanated from the stereo – Alison explained that she was busy preparing a new class on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which that overture was composed in 1826.

"Irrland's" split pea and lentil soup

As we sat down to tea and cookies, we chatted about food first – of course ! Besides being an accomplished writer, lecturer, painter, art history professor, and art and literature critic, Alison loves to cook – when she finds the time is beyond me ! And even though her comparative literature doctoral dissertation was about James Joyce and heavy-hitting philosopher and theorist Roland Barthes, it seemed a natural extension for her to write a cookbook about all the foods referenced in James Joyce’s body of work.

Breast Enlarging Tonic

"Irrland's" split pea and lentil soup

The Joyce of Cooking is not only an extraordinary collection of food, drink, and home remedies mentioned by James Joyce’s characters. From a recipe for Combustible Duck to Molly’s Breast Enlarging Tonic, and from a list of “Menus for Joycean CEREbrations” to a proposal of an “existential psychoanalysis of food choices” in which the author cites Claude Lévi-Strauss, F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Alison’s all-encompassing book is truly a celebration of both food and literature.

Alison began her cookbook while living and studying in Dublin, Galway, and Oxford (among others). Seven years later, having moved to New York, she finished the book in a spartan work studio on the 2nd floor of Westbeth, using scissors and tape, her papers spread out over the floor – this is how books were completed before computers ! But she actually lived on the 3rd floor then, with her husband, who she married in 1984 at Gotham Book Mart, home of the James Joyce Society.

All told, Alison has lived at Westbeth for 30 years now. So she’s seen plenty of changes in the West Village since she arrived, including the construction of the nearby High Line (photo), apparently inspired by the Coulée verte René-Dumont in Paris, and the new Whitney Museum (built by none other than Renzo Piano, architect of Beaubourg, or Centre Pompidou, in Paris).

Lobster and pork sausage

"Irrland's" split pea and lentil soup

Sometimes she sees local stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurie Anderson, Julianne Moore, and Willem Dafoe in the area’s markets and (now upscale) shops. Chelsea Market isn’t too far, and New Yorkers seem to agree that The Lobster Place is fantastic (I agree — take a gander at this octopus carpaccio), and Alison swears by Buon Italia’s salsiccia cruda or pork sausage.

Alison says that apart from going to museums around the city (including her favorite, the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City), she hardly ever goes north of 23rd Street. And with so many fantastic shops and cultural activities in her own neighborhood, why would she need to go anywhere else ?

"Irrland's" split pea and lentil soup

"Irrland’s" split pea and lentil soup

Making this humble, warming late-winter soup fills the house with just the kinds of odors that welcome everyone home after a blustery, lion-like March day. There’s nothing fancy about this recipe – and that’s just the way it should be.

Alison’s original recipe from The Joyce of Cooking calls for boiling the split peas and lentils in one pot, and making a pork stock in another. If you have pork stock on hand, this is the time to use it ! Otherwise, I’ve made this recipe into a one-pot deal – just make sure to skim the whole time the soup is cooking.

If you’re wondering about the origin of this recipe : this is quoted from Alison’s introduction to the recipe, itself quoted from page 171 of Finnegans Wake : “Shem the Penman ‘even ran away with hunself and became a farsoonerite, saying he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea.’”

ingredients :
- generous ½ cup (110g) dried split peas
- generous ½ cup (110g) dried brown or green lentils
- 9 ounces (250g) smoked ham hocks, bacon, or pork ribs
- 1 medium onion (225g), chopped
- 2 medium carrots (120g), washed, peeled, and coarsely grated or chopped (your pick)
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1½ tablespoons salt
- white pepper to taste
- 1 cup (150g) diced ham
- 1 handful spinach or watercress (3 ounces or 90g)
- 1 small handful parsley or watercress for garnish

how to make it :
1. In separate bowls, soak the split peas for 6 hours, the lentils for 2 hours. Rinse them thoroughly and drain.
2. Combine the split peas, lentils, and ham hocks in a large soup pot. Add 8 cups (2 liters) of cold water and bring to the boil over medium-high heat.
3. Skim off any foam and add the onions, carrots, cloves, bay leaf, and garlic. Bring to the boil again, skimming as needed, and then lower the heat. Simmer for about 30 minutes.
4. While the soup is cooking, blanch the spinach or watercress by submersing the leaves into boiling water. Boil for about 1 minute, then quickly drain and transfer the leaves to a bowl of ice water. Drain again and squeeze to remove excess moisture.
5. After 30 minutes of simmering, add the salt to the soup. Simmer for about 30 minutes more, then add the pepper and ham. The split peas and lentils should be nicely softened by now.
6. Chop the blanched spinach or watercress coarsely and add it to the soup. Stir well.
7. Season to taste, and serve the soup in wide shallow bowls if serving as a main course. Garnish with the parsley or watercress. As Alison writes, this is “Good with brown soda bread on its own, or before a salmon main course.”

serves 5 as a main course, 10 as a first course

Tags : James Joyce , Chelsea Market , Alison Armstrong


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