Soups of French Canada
Since we are so close to the U.S.-Canadian border, friends asked me to write about French Canadian cuisine. Quebec is known for many foods, the chief of which is maple syrup. Canada produces 70% of the world’s syrup — and 90% of that comes from Quebec Province.
Other famous French Canadian delights include Poutine (French fries with gravy), Cretons (a spiced pork pate eaten for breakfast), Tarte au sucre (sugar pie), Pouding chmeur (poor man’s pudding), Tourtiere (meat pie). There are many other French-Canadian dishes … but since January is Soup Month I’m beginning with soup. Quebec has many cold winter days, and soup is a classic belly warmer.
One of the most popular soups in French Canada is Soupe aux pois — yellow pea soup. Because of this, Quebecers are sometimes called “Pea Soupers.”
It’s the signature soup of Quebec, just as chicken soup is the main soup in Jewish cuisine. Thick and filling, it warms both body and soul during the long, dark, frigid Canadian winters. It’s the kind of soup that makes you feel better when you’re suffering from a cold or flu.
Before refrigerators and freezers, dried peas, salt pork, dried herbs and root vegetables were stored in root cellars. This soup was a mainstay in midwinter when fresh vegetables were not available.
Soupe aux pois is made with whole, yellow, dried peas and ham or salt pork, flavored with herbs. Newfoundland’s pea soup is similar, but includes more vegetables like carrots and turnips, and is topped with small dumplings.
Smoked ham is an essential ingredient; that meaty bone is important because it gives the soup a rich flavor. If you don’t have a meaty ham bone from a ham roast or smoked pulled pork shoulder on hand, you can buy ham hocks at your local butcher.
The other essential ingredient is dried yellow peas. Today it can be hard to find whole dried yellow peas, so you may have to settle for split peas. The advantage is that split peas cook faster than whole peas. Just make sure to use yellow peas, not green peas, for this signature Quebec pea soup.
In the United States, we have Campbells’ canned soup; in Canada, the most popular brand of canned pea soup is Habitant. While canned soup is convenient and quick, Soupe aux pois is easy to make and freezes well — though the peas do take a long time to cook.
To make it, saute onions, then add the pork, peas, herbs and any other vegetables you have on hand, and simmer on the stove for several hours until the peas fall apart, everything is cooked through, the smoky ham flavor has permeated through the pot, and your home is filled with warm, scented steam from the simmering soup.
Another common French-Canadian soup is Soupe aux gourganes, a soup made with the traditional gourgane bean. This variety of fava bean was once widely cultivated in Quebec, and this soup remains a symbolic dish in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and Charlevoix regions of southwestern Quebec. For this soup, the broth is made with beef shanks and salted bacon. Freshly shelled gourganes beans are added and cooked until tender with pearl barley, carrots, cabbage, tomato and vermicelli. It is seasoned with savory and garnished with minced fresh chives. Regional variations may use other seasonings and veggies.
Sorel-Tracy, a city in southwestern Quebec, is the home of Gibelotte de Sorel, a tomato-based soup with white fish and vegetables. Barley soup — Soupe a l’orge perle — is popular throughout French Canada. An old peasant soup, whole hulled barley is soaked, then simmered with vegetables, salt and a little lard or oil.
French Canadian Pea Soup
A little pork lard, bacon or oil for the pan (a tablespoon, or a little less)
1 large onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 stalk celery
1 lb. dry yellow peas (whole or split)
1 smoked ham hock (about a pound), meaty ham bone or 1/2 pound salt pork
1 quart broth
1 quart water
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon summer savory
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley, optional, for garnish
If using whole peas, rinse and sort peas, then soak in cold water overnight. If using split peas, just rinse before using.
Heat lard or oil in the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed soup kettle. Peel and dice the onion; add and sprinkle with salt. Cover, and cook on medium-low 5 minutes, until translucent. Slice carrot and celery, stir in and cook 5 minutes more.
Add peas, ham, broth, water, bay leaf, thyme and savory. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer and cook until peas are tender and begin falling apart, about 3 hours. Stir occasionally, and add more water or broth if needed.
Discard bay leaves. Remove the meat and cool slightly; cut it off the bone, chop or shred, and return to the soup. Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed. Leave as-is for a chunkier texture. Puree some or all of the peas for a thicker, creamier consistency (this is not traditional) before adding the meat back in.
Garnish each serving with fresh chopped parsley.
This soup is excellent reheated.
Option: Some regions add garlic, leeks, turnips or other vegetables to the soup.
Barley Soup with Mushrooms or Cabbage
A simple soup perfect for a cold winter day.
1/2 cup hulled barley
1/2 pound inexpensive beef cuts (the long, slow cooking tenderizes the tough cuts of meat)
1 Tablespoon olive oil, lard or butter
1 large onion
1 teaspoon salt
8 oz mushrooms (portobello or white button) OR 1 small head cabbage, chopped or shredded
1 or 2 carrots
1 or 2 stalks celery
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 cups broth (beef or vegetable)
2 cups water
Salt and pepper taste
Soak barley in water overnight, or for several hours.
Heat the oil to medium-high in a large soup kettle. Add beef cuts, season with salt and pepper, and brown. Remove to a plate, and set aside.
Add onion to the same pan; lower heat and cook 5 minutes until translucent. Quarter or slice mushrooms, stir in and cook 5 minutes more. Scrub and dice the carrots, add, and cook for a couple more minutes. Slice the celery, and add. Add the garlic, soaked, drained barley, chopped cabbage, reserved meat, broth, and water. Bring to a boil, then cover and lower heat to a simmer about one hour, or until the barley and meat are tender.
Check occasionally and add broth, if needed.
Taste, and adjust seasonings.
Option: Use cole slaw mix in place of cabbage.
Option: Alternately, cook a beef bone, onion and soaked, rinsed barley for 40 minutes in salted water or broth. Remove bone; add diced carrots and shredded cabbage. Cook until tender. Cut meat off the bone and return to pot. Season and serve.
Serves 4 – 6.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at Words Are My World.