PEA SOUP WITH CROUTONS
Cecamariti - Muersi
Preparation - Difficult; Soaking peas. Prep: 20 - Cook: 2:00 +
Serves 6 - 8
Cecamariti is what this was called at the Ristorante Bruna, just 10 minutes outside Lecce in the town of San Donato, and Claudia Bacile told me that it means a dish thrown together with whatever's at hand to placate a hungry husband.
At the Ristorante Acaya, on the other hand, in a village of the same name on the other side of Lecce, the exact same dish was called muersi, meaning little morsels-though whether it was morsels of peas or of fried bread wasn't clear.
Whatever it's called, this is a real peasant dish, the kind that can be easily transported out to the fields, or that will fill the farmer up in the morning before he leaves the house so he can pass the rest of the day with just a little piece of bread and cheese to keep him going. A pure dish of the Salento, the southeasternmost tip of Puglia, it's proof positive of the goodness of simple ingredients when they're combined as intelligently as they are here.
Leftover cooked greens, such as dandelion greens or broccoli rabe, are often stirred in at the last minute before serving, along with the fried bread.
Heavy pot with lid, frying pan.
- 1 lb whole dried peas, soaked overnight*
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 4 or 5 small very ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced, or 1 cup drained canned tomatoes, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped, to make 1/2 to 3/4 cup
- 1 small dried hot red chile pepper, coarsely chopped
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 4 or 5 slices country-style bread
- 1/2 cup plus a little more extra virgin olive oil
*NOTE: Whole dried green peas are used in the the Salento, but they're not always easy to find here. I've made the soup very successfully with split peas instead, though the cooking time for the peas may be reduced by half.
- Drain the peas and put in a heavy pan.
- Add fresh water to cover to a depth of 1 inch about 4 cups of water. (Cooks in the Salento use a handsome terra-cotta pignatta for this, but any heavy, lidded pot will do.) Set the pot over medium-low heat and when the liquid begins to simmer, lower the heat and cover the pan.
- After about 1 hour of simmering (half an hour for split peas - see below), stir in the diced vegetables, parsley, and chile pepper.
- Cook 5 minutes, then taste and add salt and pepper as desired.
- Cover the pan again and continue simmering another hour or longer, until the peas are very tender and have started to dissolve into a mush - time depends on the age and the size of the peas, and split peas will take a good deal less than whole ones. Add a very little boiling water from time to time if the peas become too thick.
- When the peas are thoroughly cooked, puree the contents of the pan, using a food mill or an immersion mixer. You should have a thick puree that is fairly smooth but with some discernible bits of peas and vegetables in it. Return the puree to the rinsed-out pan and keep hot while you prepare the bread.
- Cut the bread slices into large croutons about 1 inch square, discarding the crusts.
- In a frying pan over medium heat, heat 1/2 cup of the olive oil until it is just below smoking.Add the bread pieces and fry until crisp and golden brown on all sides.Remove and drain on a rack covered with paper towels.
- Transfer the peas to a heated serving dish, stir in the bread cubes, and serve immediately, drizzled with the olive oil left in the pan after sautéing the bread pieces - or add fresh olive oil if desired.
Flavors of Puglia
Nancy Harmon Jenkins