I blame Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" for ingraining this idea that we're all supposed to be roasting chestnuts on an open fire during the holidays. Show of hands: How many people have actually roasted, let alone tasted, a fresh chestnut? Also, if you live in New York City like me, how many of you have an open fire available?
I, for one, was never too interested in working with the stubborn nut. It was always more of an afterthought for me, like cranberry sauce and fruitcake, holiday food items that we always put out but don't always understand or appreciate.
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Admittedly, my first encounter with chestnuts didn't go so well. It was early in my culinary career, at the ripe age of 14, when I roasted them (in an oven, mind you); within 10 minutes or so, I started to hear explosions from the oven, akin to popcorn popping. Of course, I had forgotten to pierce the chestnut's skin to allow the steam to release. What resulted was a mess and no popcorn.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I got chestnuts on the brain again, when I had a taste of an unbelievably savory chestnut and mushroom velouté that shed new light on how I view chestnuts.
So I started playing around with fresh ones, and working with them isn't as hard as you might think. Here's how to attack the peeling process: Use a sharp paring or utility knife to score across each chestnut's rounded side. Soak the chestnuts in water for a minute or so, then drain them and heat them in the microwave for one minute. After they're cool enough to handle but still warm, squeeze and peel them from their shell. And you're ready to roast or, in this case, sauté.
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I reinterpreted the flavors from the sauce I mentioned earlier into a condiment that fits somewhere between a compote and a gravy (see the recipe). Onions are roasted in the oven until tender, before being added to mushrooms that have been sautéed with cognac. Chestnuts, bay leaves, thyme and heavy cream are then added. Once the sauce has simmered and thickened, it's topped with a sprinkling of parsley and lemon zest. It can go on roast meats or vegetables, but it seems to work best on thick pieces of crunchy bread that can soak up some of the sauce.
Of course, if cooking with fresh chestnuts still seems like a lot of work, I've also come up with a flourless chocolate cake that incorporates that of-the-moment chestnut flavor by using canned purée (see the recipe). The brownie-like cake is served with a sweet-tart kumquat compote and a dollop of mascarpone cream — it absolutely deserves a spot on your holiday table.
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With a little patience and a few learning curves in the kitchen, I've learned to not only appreciate the sweet and fragrant chestnut and its crumbly texture but actually enjoy it. And hopefully you will, too.
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