But before we get down to cooking, please indulge me a bit of a nutrition lesson.
Saponins are chemical compounds found in certain plants, especially legumes, tubers and beans. Saponins get their name from the soapwart plant which the ancients used for soap. The connection between the soapwart plant and saponins is that saponins themselves act as a kind of soap–for plants. The saponins keep bugs and fungus away from plants so they can grow to maturity (apparently bugs don’t like to eat soap!).
Unfortunately, injesting saponins is toxic for humans–much like soap would be! Recent research has connected high saponin intake in humans with auto-immune disease, type-2 Diabetes and ‘leaky gut syndrome (there is a reason beans are the “musical fruit”!).
Have you ever wondered what that soapy, foamy, stinky, dirty-hot-tub-looking sediment at the surface of the pot is when you boil beans or legumes? It’s the saponins. Boiling separates them from the food, causing them to rise to the top. Yuck, I know. The (somewhat) good news is that saponins can be (somewhat) extracted from legumes, tubers and beans by soaking, boiling and especially pressure cooking them. For someone who eats paleo but wants the occasional indulgence in a legume-based soup, this is promising.
I want to be clear that it is impossible to completely eradicate saponins from legumes and beans, which means no split pea recipe can ever be strictly paleo. This recipe is no exception. However, the saponin level in my split pea soup is severely reduced: I omit potatoes (a traditional ingredient), substituting parsnips; I use a mix of lentils with the split peas (lentils contain less saponins than peas do); I soak the lentils and peas for 24 hours prior to cooking and; in the absence of a pressure cooker (next purchase!), I boil the legumes like crazy before adding the other ingredients (siphoning off the sudsy saponins as I go). What results is a flavorful, satisfying and less, ahem “musical,” soup that is perfect for a winter dinner–and a treat for any paleo eater.
A few culinary notes: if you do not want to use bacon (and/or cannot find uncured bacon), omit it and add more ham. In this case it is even MORE important to find dried real chipotles and grind them up. The chipotles add a delicious smokiness that is especially needed if you use uncured bacon (or no bacon at all). Look in your grocer’s ‘hispanic’ food aisle if it has one, or poke around for a specialty store if you cannot find these where you shop:
12 ounces uncured bacon, diced
3-4 cups diced, n0-nitrate cooked ham
T fresh, chopped rosemary (double if using dried)
2 t fresh dill (double if using dried)
1 T ground cumin
1 large diced yellow or white onion
1 medium minced shallot
3 medium carrots diced
2 medium diced parsnips
1 medium diced sweet potato
2 stalks diced celery
3-5 minced garlic cloves
8-10 cups oranic chicken stock
dry sherry or white wine for sauteing veggies
1/2 pound split peas
1/2 pound French (orange) lentils
1/4 cup finely ground dried chipotle (keep seeds if you want it spicy)
salt and pepper
pat of butter
olive oil–enough for a couple of pours around a pan
The day before you are going to make your soup, put the lentils and split peas into a large stock pot, fill with water and begin to pour off the ‘suds’ (saponins) that will immediately appear on the surface of the water. Do this several times and let sit. Return to the pot as you are able and continue this process:
When you are ready to prepare your soup, boil the pot of legumes on the stove at medium-high heat, again siphoning of the foamy saponins that will reappear. Be careful to stir occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot and burn:
The lentils will become very tender in about 20 minutes, while the split peas will still be a bit firm. Completely drain the liquid off the top, being careful not to pour your lentil and pea mix down the drain. With all the foamy stuff gone (you may have to take a clean cloth and clean the rim of the pot), add 6-8 cups of chicken stock to the legumes. Stir until well incorporated. Set aside on the back burner:
In a large pan on medium to high heat, saute the bacon and ham together. Remove and add to the pot. In the same saute pan add onions, shallots and celery, add a little butter and a swirl of olive oil to moisten veggies. Season with salt and pepper. Saute for a minute or so. Add parsnips, carrots and sweet potato, season with salt and pepper and saute for about 3 minutes (add more butter and olive oil if necessary). Add garlic to the mix plus herbs and chipotle, turning the veggies so the herbs and spices incorporate. Add sherry/wine and simmer down for another minute or so. Add saute mixture to pot, put pot back on the stove and simmer for about 30 minutes. Add more stock as needed (to thin about the soup to desired consistency). Serve with cracked pepper and fresh herb garnish:
This vegetable and meat-dense soup is about as “paleo” as you are going to get and still have a split pea soup. Enjoy!
*Wine pairing suggestion: a very dry white wine such as a Semillon or medium bodied red such as a Pinot Noir