Cracking The Chestnut - Roasting Is Just The Beginning
They appear by the bushel in grocery stores during the winter months. They look like other nuts, but they're low in fat and calories. They're high in fiber and vitamin C. They nip at your nose - no, wait, that's not quite right...
Chestnuts are the husk-enclosed fruit of the European chestnut tree. They may not have the cachet of cashews - you won't find them in little bowls at parties - but they're great in the kitchen.
Choose chestnuts that are shiny, heavy, and hard. If they rattle in their shells, they're old chestnuts.
To cook them, cut an X-shaped incision in each (or your results will be quite explosive), then boil them or roast them in a 400 degrees F oven for 10-15 minutes and peel them while they're still warm. If you're pureeing them or you just like them softer, simmer the peeled nuts for another half hour or so. Or just roast them on an open fire, of course.
Once cooked (whether homemade or commercial), they're recipe-ready. So then what?
Chestnuts are a traditional ingredient in desserts of all kinds, from tortes to cookies to puddings, but they can also add an elusive, nutty "what is that?" flavor to savory dishes:
- Combine sautéed chopped chestnuts and onion with brown, white, or wild rice to make a pilaf.
- Try them with Brussels sprouts, braised cabbage, kale, collards, or even broccoli; the flavor is a good foil for the slight bitterness of greens and cruciferous veggies.
- Add them to any poultry stuffing.
- Accompany meat or game with chestnut puree flavored with black pepper.
- Add chestnut puree to mashed potatoes (3 or 4 parts potato to 1 part chestnut).
- Make a side dish by pureeing chestnuts with any cooked root vegetable - parsnips and sweet potatoes work well.
- Use chestnut or chestnut/root puree to thicken a soup.
Chestnut and Fennel Soup
2 cups roasted chestnuts
1 shallot, diced
2 leeks, chopped
2 + 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp dry white wine
1/2 fennel bulb coarsely chopped
1 cup chicken broth
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup half-and-half
1. Roughly chop the chestnuts, reserve 1/3 cup for garnishing.
2. In a large sauce pan over medium heat, cook the shallots and leeks in 2 tablespoons of butter, stirring occasionally until softened. Reduce the heat, add the wine and simmer until most of the liquid is evaporated, about a minute. Stir in the chestnuts, fennel, broth and water, then simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the half-and-half, allow to cool slightly.
3. In a blender, purée the mixture in batches until smooth. Return the pot to the stove and bring soup back up to a simmer. Thin with water if desired and season with salt and pepper.
4. While the soup is reheating, heat the remaining butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and sauté the reserved chestnuts with a bit of salt and pepper, stirring constantly, until the chestnuts are crisp and the butter has browned nicely, about 3 minutes.
5. Garnish the soup with some crispy chestnut bits and a drizzle of brown butter.
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