Of all the beans, peas and legumes known to this world, split green peas are my favorite. There is no potaje de anything that makes me happier than this green one right here. I’ve been enjoying it since I was a little girl and seem to grow fonder of it as I get older. But I won’t make it all that often at all. I leave cooking and its serving to Mami. She is the expert from start to finish and so why bother messing with something when it’s perfect. I tell no lie.
Very funny, but sadly very true story about chícharos, as Cubans call it. My father was a diplomat translator in Cuba for many years. Some time before I was born, he was hosting a lot of French diplomats and businessmen coming to the forbidden island. He speaks a beautiful Parisien French. So, while those romantic, I’ll-do-anything-to impress-you days with my mother, he took her out to eat at a quasi fancy restaurant in Havana. As my father would have it, he put his best face forward, popped his collar and ordered in French. Apparently the restaurant had some French connections and some menu items were inspired as such. He ordered “Purée St. Germain.” Mami was all excited and asked him what it was. “No se, vamos haber,” he replies. The server, a young Cuban guy asks my dad if he was sure he wanted that. After a few confirmations and subtle suggestions he may not want that, the server obliged and placed my dad’s order of the really great sounding “Purée St. Germain.”
In high anticipation of some refined dish, Papi and Mami worked up an appetite. Out comes the server, places the bowl of the purée in front of both of them and my father, knowing how to quickly rebut says that he didn’t order chícharo, rather St. Germain. Well, you get it, right?! Purée St. Germain is French for chícharo! My father was embarrassed and Mami was all but upset, laughing at it all off and chalking it up to Cuba’s wanna be fancy appeal. The funny in this? This was 1973, I think, when very specific foods were being rationed to everyone. Split peas were one of them so my parents were up to their necks eating chícharos just about every day. Could you imagine going out for a lovely date with your new wife, you dress up the ordering process, trying to impress your beautiful spouse all to have dished out the same food you’ve been sick of eating for the last 6 months!
Gasp. What a disaster. It explains the servers insistence on my dad ordering something else off the menu.
No matter, they enjoyed the experience and never looked at split peas the same. In fact, I love their story so much, I appreciate my chicharos even more now. Like every other bean or pea typical of our diet, we eat this over rice. But, when I’m “dieting” and needing to minimize my carb intake, I skip the rice and thin out the would be thick potaje so I can enjoy as a soup like bowl. Truthfully, I prefer it how we traditionally serve it. The consistency is nice and thick, making it a superb comfort food. But, even thinned out, the flavor is there and you’re not missing anything but the calories.
I’ve seen many variations in split peas but I’ve not tried more than two others. One was an Indian version of dahl, using yellow split peas and the other was a Latin style one but no where similar to ours. Mami almost used calabaza and or white potatoes (which adds to the consistency) and a tender cut of beef, typically flank steak or a few bone-in short ribs.
My trick in making chícharos is simple: pressure cook them. As a professional I wouldn’t suggest using that technique. Any pressure cooker manual will always list split peas as one of the few things you should never cook in it. Why? Because they literally split and become so “frothy,” potentially causing the valves to clog. Don’t want that ever. For the everyday home cook, I’d go for a traditional stock pot. You’d have to soak them overnight to loosen them. These little bits are hard! A basis sofrito will flavor them and the carne will complete the pow factor!
I put my two sense in this last batch we made. I hawked the prep process and secured more more butternut squash than usual, replaced the potato with yuca and sautéed a mire poix instead of my traditional sofrito. Oh yes, I was loving it! Switching things up every now and then can prove to be super delicious!
If interested, please email me for the original Cuban recipe I grew up on. This is one of those “classified” recipes I have on the cookbook docket…. yeah, that cookbook that’s been in the works for 3 years now. Oh joy. Soon. Very, very soon.