VEGETARIANISM ISN’T necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Higgins Restaurant & Bar, the venerable downtown eatery that was an early pioneer in serving house-made charcuterie. (Both times I phoned chef and owner Greg Higgins, he was “up to his elbows” butchering meat.) But Higgins, whose wife is a vegetarian, has long been committed to meat-free cooking, too. A solid third of his restaurant’s ever-changing daily menu is vegetarian or vegan, and he understands that to please the omnivores in search of a fine meal, he’s got to reach into different cuisines, get imaginative, and win them over with surprising meat-free dishes.
One consistent winner is the split pea soup. If the mere mention conjures wafts of ham hocks and a wintry, stick-to-your-ribs heartiness, think again. Higgins lightens up the usual formula with some surprising flavors, creating a soup that’s warm and filling but refreshingly bright. Instead of rich smoked meats, he employs cumin seeds and orange zest, perking up the soup’s heavier flavors with an almost Caribbean feel. “Peas have an earthy nuttiness,” he says, “and then you have the high notes of the cumin and orange. It adds some complexity, a broader spectrum of flavor.” He simmers the peas in two batches, so that some maintain their texture while others break down to provide a creamy backdrop. Higgins’s beloved chiles spark it up even more—at the restaurant, he favors hot-yet-fruity options like aji dulce, though you can re-create something similar at home with jalapeños and a dash of your favorite hot sauce. The deliciously zesty result is a soup hearty enough to satisfy even the most dedicated carnivores.