Wednesday, April 2, 2014

ceviche verde: or how to bring the beaches of Luquillo to your kitchen

Today is grey.
Today is rainy and grey.
The light coming through my window even has a dull grey tint to it.
The world outside is dull and muted.

...But that doesn't mean that your day will be a grey, dull one.
Today could be green.
Today, you could make ceviche.

As I mentioned in my last post, I survived mainly on ceviche during my recent getaway to Puerto Rico.  I ordered it every chance I got, comparing the different marinades and ingredients.  The best ceviche I had was in Luquillo at a tiny beachfront shack called the Ceviche Hut.  They make traditional Peruvian ceviche serving it with sweet corn and baked sweet potato, but added a giant fried plantain on the side just to make sure you hadn't forgotten you're in Puerto Rico.  I ordered their octopus dish, since I had never had one before and it intrigued me - I know that cooking octopus with heat is difficult and it can easily turn tough and chewy if you don't do it right, so I wasn't sure what the acid would do or not do to the texture.  But the octopus was prepared perfectly, tender and light, and full of flavor.  The plain corn and sweet potato worked wonderfully to cut through and balance the acid in the marinade.

A big part of the reason this was my favorite ceviche was because I ate it out of a styrofoam container while sitting right on the sand of Luquillo beach, sipping a mojito and watching the sun set behind the palms.  Might be my favorite meal of the weekend.  If you get the chance, I highly recommend making the trip just for this experience.  However, if you can't eat ceviche on the beaches of Luquillo this week, you can bring the ceviche to you...
Since ceviche deals with raw fish, I didn't want to wing it and screw up this simple, but delicate process.  So, like I do with most things I'm unsure about, I did a bunch of research.  I looked at a ton of recipes online until I found this one for a ceviche verde (green marinade made from lime juice) from the New York Times -it looked easy and incredibly delicious.  While it is very different from the ones I had on the island, I was excited to use a preparation that I hadn't tried yet - plus, it fit in with the green kick I've been on recently. The avocado and fresh radishes take the place of the corn and sweet potato in balancing the acid...though I think next time I'll do a combination - maybe corn, avocado, and sweet potato salad.
A few quick notes -
1) I left out the cilantro from the original recipe because my dad hates it.  So if you're not a fan either, it doesn't completely change the integrity of the dish if you leave it out.  I did add a tablespoon or so of chopped basil to add that fresh, herby greenness.
2) Make sure you get your fishmonger to take the skin off the fish, or have a really sharp filet knife at home.  I did neither, which resulted in a bit of a mess, and hacked, mangled chunks of fish.  Though, while they weren't the prettiest cuts of fish, they still tasted lovely.
3) The recipe recommends serving the ceviche on top of a tostada - a deep fried corn tortilla.  However, I didn't want a greasy, heavy base to weigh down the light, brightness of the fish.  So, I found a recipe for a baked tostada - brush both sides of a corn tortilla with olive oil, then bake on a tinfoil lined baking sheet at 400 degrees for five minutes on each side.  The result is a light, crispy tostada that adds a beautiful crunchy texture without the greasiness of a traditional tostada.

Monday, March 31, 2014

fighting the winter funk: or i am so sick of being cold.

These past two months have been a bit of a blur - a grey, cold, dark, snowy blur.  This is the winter that just won't give up.  During February it wasn't too terrible.  I mean, technically it's still winter so freezing cold and snow is expected.  Plus, it's my birthday month, so I'm more focused on myself and making sure everyone around me is also focused entirely on me and my happiness.  Both in an attempt to battle the weather and as an outward expression of the joy I was feeling on the inside, my February kitchen was full of warmth - soups and stews, lots of bread and baked goods, golden browns and oranges and deep reds.  However, as February came to a close, my longing and yearning for spring and warmer weather became much more intense, and when March failed to deliver, I fell into a deep psychological and culinary depression.  I was getting sick of constantly being cold.  I was sick of being stuck inside.  I was sick of heavy stews and soups.  I was sick of squash and cauliflower and mushrooms and sprouts and thyme and sage and rosemary.  I was just so terribly sick of winter.

I wasn't the only one feeling the winter blues.  And mid-way through March, my family decided to make an impromptu weekend getaway to Puerto Rico.  Now let me just say, this is completely out of character for us.  We normally plan vacations for moooooonths, doing tons of research and scheduling every day, jam-packing our itinerary to make sure we do everything we possibly can.  And we never ever go anywhere tropical.  Our vacations are usually educational, meaning we visit somewhere with lots of history, museums and culture, all of which we need to experience in a five day span.  However, this vacation was planned on the fly with the sole intention of spending three days doing nothing but laying out on the beach drinking cocktails.  Which is exactly what we did.  Alright, fine, we did spend a day exploring the rain forest and getting dinner in Old San Juan, but otherwise all I did was snooze on the beach and drink muchos margaritas.
In addition to a pukka necklace and a sunburn, I came home with a sunnier and more positive disposition.  The vivid colors and lushness of the island - such a stark contrast to the grey mundane, barrenness of home - seemed to shock me back to life.  And the food!  Everything was so bright and fresh and light that my taste buds were awoken along with the rest of me.  While much of the Puerto Rican cuisine is meat-and-cheese laden and deep fried (sometimes multiple times), I ate some incredible foods (my dad and I basically lived on ceviche - fish, shrimp, octopus, scallop, you name it, we ate it) and encountered some insane flavor combinations (my favorite thing I ate was poached halibut with a mango-sun-dried-tomato-mint sauce, mainly because I never thought that those ingredients would taste good together, but by god, they were ridiculously delicious).

And even though it was freezing cold and snowing when we landed back home, it didn't bring me down.  I realized that instead of being completely affected by and a slave to my environment, I needed to take control.  While Winter may still be holding on out of doors, I've decided to bring Spring into my kitchen.  I'm on a big green kick - peas, basil, broccoli, spinach, edamame, mint, lime, and avocado - all fresh and bright on the plate and on the palate.  And with the lightening of my dishes and my diet, I feel the heaviness of the winter-funk lifting.  It's incredible what a little change in diet can do for you physically and psychologically...but let's be honest, I won't be back to myself completely until the farm market season starts back up.  And it can't come soon enough...41 days and counting...

Saturday, February 1, 2014

thai-peanut-baked-sweet-potato-mash: or quick-fire dinners.

As I've mentioned before, I love the throw-together dinners.  They're way better than the ones that I plan for days and make special grocery runs for.  My best creations are usually conceived on nights when a grocery run has been overlooked and I need to make dinner with leftover ingredients from planned-dinners and whatever I can find hidden in cupboards and the far reaches of the fridge.  Again, for someone basically spontaneous-less in life, flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants in the kitchen always seems to work out beautifully.

And sometimes, when throwing together a dinner, you get an absolutely fabulous idea in your head, but then you try to execute it and you mess something up in the middle and you have to be at work in a half hour, so you have to completely abandon your original idea and come up with an alternative on the spot.  It's like a Top Chef quickfire except you've got ten minutes instead of a half hour and if you fail you don't get dinner. And sometimes, those quickfire dinners are dishes that you would have never created otherwise, and which are way better than the seemingly "absolutely fabulous" idea you started out with.

And so, I present to you, my latest quickfire dinner: Thai-peanut-baked-sweet-potato-mash (I'll come up with a better name at some point...)  I mean, you could have it as a side-dish, but it's way better as your whole dinner. Slice some avocado on top and drink a glass of a big Cab, and bam!  That's your dinner right there, baby.

makes four very generous servings

3 large sweet potatoes
2 heaping tbs peanut butter (I used Earth Balance creamy coconut-peanut butter)
3 scallions, chopped (plus a little extra for garnish)
1 small red onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs fresh grated ginger
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tbs Thai chili sauce
red pepper flakes

+ Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
+ Using a fork or pairing knife, poke the potatoes all over (take out all your angst/anger/frustration from the day/week/year on those potatoes, it's cathartic and will help the potatoes cook faster). Wrap each potato in tin foil individually and place on a baking sheet.  Bake for an hour or until the potatoes are tender.
+ While the potatoes are cooking, combine peanut butter, scallions, onions, garlic, ginger, soy, and chili sauce in a large bowl.  Give it a quick mix, just to combine.
+ When the potatoes are finished cooking, allow them to cool for a few minutes, just until you're able to handle them without burning your fingers.  Cut each potato in half, then remove the skins (they should peel off very easily, but if they're a little tougher, use a spoon to scrape them off).  Then cut the halves into big chunks and add to the bowl with the peanut mixture.
+ Combine the potatoes with the peanut mixture using a potato masher until gently mashed and well combined (I liked leaving some nice bite-sized chunks of potato, but you can make it as mashed or un-mashed as you'd like).  Add the sriracha to taste.
+ Transfer potatoes to a medium baking dish.  Put under the broiler until the peaks of the potatoes begin to brown, about 10 minutes.
+ Serve warm right from the oven, garnished with scallions and red pepper flakes for added heat.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

how i spent my snow day: or this is as spontaneous as i get.

I don't consider myself much of a baker.  I find that baking tends to be restrictive creatively.  For instance, if you forget to salt a filet of salmon before you bake it, you can always salt it when it comes out, or even right at the table after you've already had a bite.  If you forget to put salt in your country loaf dough, well, too bad, there's no fixing that one.  There's more careful planning and less spontaneity in baking - which is kind of ironic, since outside the kitchen I am the over-planner-to-a-fault and tend to stay as far away from spontaneity as possible.  However, there are some days that just beg for baking.  On days when I'm overwhelmingly anxious and I've gone through all the tools in my anti-anxiety toolbox but nothing is working, I bake muffins.  There's something about following a recipe entirely, not using your brain, focusing all your thoughts on making sure everything's right, and then in the end, being rewarded with a beautifully golden-brown creation.  Instead of having my anxiety take over, I use it to produce something lovely.  No matter how out of control your life feels, you can put flour and sugar and eggs and oil and baking powder and a little salt in a bowl, mix it up, bake it, and they'll rise and magically become muffins.  Its a wonderful thing.

The other times when baking takes my fancy are snow days - what better time to bake than when it's cold outside and you're stuck inside and there are big fat fluffy flakes floating past the kitchen window?  While high-anxiety breeds muffins, snow days breed scones and quick breads.  Don't ask me why, I don't make the rules, it's just how it works, okay?  Today was one such snow day.  Since Ol' Man Winter had confined me to the house, I did a quick inventory of the cupboards, seeing what ingredients I had to work with.  Since my anxiety has been pretty much in check this week and I had the whole day's time, I was up for a bit of baking-experimentation.  There were a couple of ripe bananas sitting out on the counter, I decided to start with a basic banana bread and then work off of that.  I love putting dried fruit in baked goods - it's so lovely when you get that bite with a little bit of sweetness and change in texture, but for me, there's never enough of it.  We always have a smorgasbord of dried fruits in the house, so that wasn't going to be an issue.  But what's fun or interesting about banana bread with dried fruits in it?  I did one more quick scan of the kitchen, including the fridge this time.  Which is where I found the carrots, buried underneath a carton of mushrooms and bag of lemons.  Carrot-banana bread with an obnoxious amount of dried fruits? Done.

I looked for a carrot-banana bread recipe (I may have been in an experimental mood, but I wasn't insane), but couldn't find one - well, at least one that wasn't a cake.  I decided to use a zucchini-banana bread recipe, tweak it to my liking, and then pray it'd come out as good as it was in my head.  And, not to brag or anything, but it was even better.  It wasn't a particularly sweet bread, but the dried fruit was a great balance, giving it just the right amount of sugar. At the last minute before baking, I decided to crush some raw almonds, mix them with a little cinnamon and brown sugar, and sprinkle them on top.  Let me tell you, best spontaneous baking decision I've ever made - it made the top super crunchy, which was a nice pairing with the soft, fluffy base.  I think this may just become my new go-to snow day baking recipe.

Carrot-Banana Bread
makes 2 loaves

3 cups AP flour
1½ tsp baking powder
1½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp salt
4 eggs
just shy 2 cups sugar
1 tbs honey
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1½ cups carrots, shredded
2 cups dried fruit, chopped (I used a mix of golden raisins, cranberries, figs, dates, and apricots)
¼ cups raw almonds, chopped
2 tbs brown sugar

+ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease two loaf pans.
+ In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.
+ In another bowl, whisk the eggs until broken.  Add the sugar and honey and whisk until smooth and creamy.  Add the bananas and stir until combined.
+ Combine half the dry ingredients with the wet.  Stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until just combined.  Add the rest of the dry and mix, but stop while there's still flour and its a little clumpy.  Add the carrot and dried fruit, then fold until just combined.
+ Divide the batter evenly between the two pans.  Bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick can be removed cleanly from the middle of the breads. (Note: I baked the loaves on the same rack, one in the back and one up front, then halfway through the baking, spun the pans and switched their positions to ensure even baking.)
+ Allow the breads to cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely...well, not completely.  Let it cool for like five minutes, then cut that baby open while its still steaming, smear a little bit of butter on top, let it melt into the soft, fluffy insides and then enjoy this delicious snow day loveliness with big cup of coffee.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"well when i was in africa": or beth's birthday week stew

We're really big into birthdays in my family.  Like they're a big deal.  Like they last a whole week deal (sometimes I try to milk it out for an entire month, but the rest of the gang rarely indulges).  And this week is all about my mother, Beth Ellen.  Her birthday isn't until Friday, but the celebrations have already begun.  Yesterday, my brother spent the better part of the afternoon concocting a special cocktail for the birthday girl - an orange creamsicle martini.  It required many variations and much taste testing, but he nailed it just in time to greet the birthday girl as she got home from work with a drink.  While she was enjoying her cocktail, I was putting the finishing touches on her specially-chosen dinner.

Now normally when I ask my mother what she wants for dinner, she gets frustrated.  Mainly because I ask her everyday.  Usually more than once.  And usually before 10 AM.  But this time it was Beth who called me for the dinner-prep chat.  Before I could get done saying hello, she cut me off with "I want that African stew tonight."  I had stumbled across a recipe for a West African peanut stew a few weeks ago and immediately showed it to Beth - not only does she love stew and all things peanutty, but she has a very strong attachment to Africa.  About ten years ago, she had her first of many trips to Africa - participating in a walk for the Elizabeth Glazier Pediatric AIDS Foundation in South Africa.  I think she really fell in love with the country, especially the people that she met.  She couldn't stop talking about it.  I'd leave her alone for five minutes in the grocery store and next thing I know she's turned to the bag boy going, "Well, when I was in Africa..."  (a decade later and we still tease her relentlessly about it).  So, on a foggy, rainy birthday-week night, this stew seemed like the most perfect thing to have for dinner.

Beth's Birthday Stew
olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 tbs ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup unsalted, smooth peanut butter
½ cup tomato paste
6 cups vegetable stock 
1 bunch collard greens, chopped
salt & pepper

+ In a large pot, heat oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onions, stir so that they are evenly covered with oil.  Salt generously and continue to cook, stirring occasionally.  Once the onions are translucent, add the ginger and garlic.  Add a little bit of stock - this not only deglazes the pot and prevents burning, but it helps to create a nice base for the stew.  Once the onions are caramelized and the mixture is nice and thick, add the rest of the stock.  Turn the heat up and bring to a low boil.
+ While the onions are cooking down, combine peanut butter and tomato paste in a large bowl.  Add a couple ladles-full of hot stock from the pot into the bowl.  Stir until smooth, adding more hot stock if necessary.
+ Turn the heat to low, then add the peanut-tomato mixture to the pot, stirring until well combined.  Add the collards, cooking until the greens are wilted, stirring occasionally.  Salt, pepper, and sriracha to taste - but let's be honest, the more spice the better.
+ Serve to the birthday girl warm and garnished with peanuts in a orange clay bowl.  Pour over brown rice or slop it up with a big hunk of crusty bread or both.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

potato waffle with thai chili sauce: or have i mentioned i really miss germany?

Quintessential Christmas Market.
So I'm not sure if I've made this clear or not, but I've been missing Germany a whole lot.  Maybe it's the end of the holiday season, or being back to work full-time, or this horrifically cold and nasty winter weather, or the fact that I've started to go a little stir crazy from being cooped up so much...whatever it is, there seems to be a gaping void in my heart that I'm having trouble filling.  It's the markets that I really miss, and while I can't re-create the experience in my living room, I've gotten pretty-damn close in my kitchen.

The market night that sticks out most in my mind is the one spent in Dusseldorf.  It was my first market, my first mug of gluhwein, and my first taste of traditional German fare.  I wasn't familiar with much of the food being sold in the stalls (flammkuchen: essentially a German version of a flatbread pizza) or with their foreign names (heisse maronen: hot chestnuts), but there was one food that I was very familiar with - kartoffelpuffer.
Me in my bier maiden get-up.

Every October we have a big Oktoberfest weekend-long celebration at the restaurant where I work; our brewers make huge batches of Pilsner and our signature Oktoberfest; the staff dresses up like idiots in "traditional" German garb (see photo); and the chefs re-do the menu with entirely German flair - we had a giant slab of wood piled high with various wursts, spatzel, sauerkraut, and, my personal favorite, the potato pancake, the kartoffelpuffer...mainly because its was so much fun to say.  Kar-toof-el-poof-er.  Whenever a table asked me what was good or what they should order, I would blurt out "kartoffelpuffer!" (lots of times before they could even finish asking me).  So, you can imagine my excitement when, walking through the Christmas Market, feeling slightly overwhelmed with all the foreign signs and people and smells, I caught sight of the first familiar thing I'd seen all day.  I may have grabbed my friend Jessica's arm, pointed and yelled "kartoffelpuffer!" causing concern in Jess and all the other market-goers.  She looked at me sideways as I said it again, a little quieter this time, "kar-toof-el-poof-er!"  "You mean kar-tofe-el-po-fer?"  Yes, I had been pronouncing it incorrectly the whole time, but the "real" pronunciation is waaaay less fun to say.  Needless to say, I dragged Jess over to the stall and made her order us a round of kartoffelpuffers.  Traditionally, they're served with applesauce, but we got the inside scoop from the teenage stall-boy who told us that you haven't had a kartoffelpuffer until you've had it with Thai chili sauce.  It sounds crazy, but by god it's amazing.  I've mentioned before the surprisingly overwhelming Asian influence in Germany, but I assumed that it was mostly in the metropolitan, newer parts of the country.  I was shocked that such a traditional dish was getting such a modern and strange spin.  But I loved it.  The salty, crunchy-on-the-outside, melt-in-your-mouth inside of the pancake paired beautifully with the sticky, sweet and wonderfully spicy chili sauce.  Add a mug of hot gluhwein and you've got a match made in heaven...or in the Dusseldorf Christmas Market.

Yesterday, after my first day back to work after the holidays, the void seemed bigger than ever.  Stumbling aimlessly around the internet, I inadvertently happened upon a recipe for a potato waffle, and I knew that's what I needed, what might aid in dulling the ache in my chest.  I'm not huge on fried foods and even less so on frying at home (the hot oil always spits all over, which always makes a mess of the stove and burns me at least ten times), so the waffle was the perfect way to get the kartoffelpuffer crunchy, yet soft consistency without having to fry.  I even made a special stop at the grocery store for Thai chili sauce.  And topped it with a poached egg, cause, I mean, why not?  And, oh, it was so good.  I mean, definitely not as good as having them made right in front of you, then eating them on the bar on the side of the stall in the middle of the market in Dusseldorf, but on a freezing, post-holiday night, it's the best way to fill the little hole in your heart.

Potato Waffle - adapted from Joy the Baker

4 tbs butter
¼ cup buttermilk
2 eggs
2 cups mashed potatoes
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp curry powder
Thai chili sauce
salt and pepper

+ In a small sauce pan, melt butter over medium-low heat.  Cook until the butter crackles and begins to brown.  Immediately transfer browned butter into a large bowl.  Whisk in buttermilk and eggs until well combined.  Mix in mashed potatoes.
+ In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, soda, and curry.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until just combined.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
+ Heat waffle iron and grease well to prevent sticking.  Drop about a ¼ cup of batter into the middle of the iron.  Cook until brown and crispy on the outside.  Remove from iron carefully (they're super delicate!) and place on cooling rack to prevent the bottoms from getting soggy.
+ To serve, drizzle with Thai chili sauce and top with poached egg.  Best consumed standing out in the cold with hot mug of gluhwein.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

my winter obsession: or taking chestnuts from strangers

It all started on a chilly Sunday this past November.  It seemed as though the Indian summer had finally run its course, and it was just starting to truly feel like autumn - the perfect day to take a long drive, look at the changing leaves, and hit up a winery (while I may not be religious, my father and I religiously stop at one of the many wineries in the area for our traditional Sunday tasting.  And yes, the employees of such establishments may be on a first name basis with us, though they have yet to waive the tasting fee *cough cough*).  These drives, while not completely aimless, tend to be meandering, allowing for a bit of discovery, spontaneity, and the unexpected.  On this particular day, we stumbled upon a barn sale.  What we thought was going to be yard sale-esque ended up being a local artist selling his found-art work in a barn (complete with a dozen scruffy, scrappy cats and a couple of old sheep) - sculptures made from bits of barn wood, antique toys and old farm equipment; intricate paintings made on scraps of metal that were lying around the barn; wood carvings from his days as a shop teacher...but I digress.  The best part (and the reason I'm telling you all this) was the chestnuts.  Yes, the chestnuts.  So, as I'm walking around this old farm, looking at all this incredible art, the wrinkled, greying farmer/artist, comes and stands next to me, and without any prompt or explanation, pulls his hand out of his pocket, holds it out to me and says, "Chestnut?"  Now, normally I'm a bit wary of anything that comes out of a strange man's pockets, but something in me said that yes, yes I really  did want a chestnut.  It was still warm from the fire and his pockets, cracked open easily between my numb fingers to reveal the delicate, fleshy meat within, which melted like buttah in my mouth...After that I may or may not have spent the rest of our time there hopefully trailing the poor man, waiting for him to offer me another chestnut.  Which he did.  Until his pockets were empty.
Barn. Art. & Roasting Chestnuts.
Awkwardly happy about chestnuts.
There was something so beautiful, romantic, quaint, and terribly singular about the whole experience that I went right home and tried to recreate this unique and irreplaceable moment again in my kitchen.  No matter how many batches of chestnuts I bought, I could never get them to open as easily or be as soft and buttery as the ones from the farmer's pockets.  The closest I came was at the Christmas Market in Dusseldorf - to be honest, it was less about the actual chestnuts themselves and more about the experience, walking the cobble-stoned streets of the Altstadt, warm chestnuts wrapped in paper in one hand and steaming gluhwein in the other.  Another experience that I have yet to adequately recreate - though I did find a recipe for gluhwein that is so spot on that after the first sip I thought for a fleeting moment I had been magically transported back to Germany...I hadn't, but it's damn good.

I hadn't realized the possibility and versatility of this beautiful little nut past roasting until last week when I stumbled upon a Mark Bittman recipe for a chestnut soup.  Not only did it include chestnuts and was created by Bittman (the Minimalist, the Flexitarian, the Vegan Before 6), but it was vegan.  How could I not make it?  And what better night for soup than tonight, so bitterly cold with the super storm Hercules pounding down on us; with fat, fluffy flakes drifting softly past my window; with snow accumulating faster than the plows can keep up with?  Exactly.  And it was. It was perfect.  And as we speak (or I write and you read later), my mind is currently working on a way to incorporate chestnuts into a snow day breakfast...I'm thinking chestnut-banana-date smoothie, but I'll keep you updated...

A few little notes before I get to the recipe.  De-shelling the roasted chestnuts is a labor intensive process.  Its not difficult, it just takes a little time and effort.  Though here's one trick I discovered tonight that makes the whole thing much easier - place the nut on a cutting board, then place a flat plate or another cutting board on top of it and then press down until it cracks (much like what you do with a knife to peel garlic).  If you're short on time or just don't want to have to roast your own, they do sell packages or pre-cooked, pre-shelled chestnuts that are actually really very good - though you lose the way the roasting flavors your house and your soup.  Oh, and I garnished my soup with some chopped-up chestnuts tossed in ground thyme.  I liked the texture of the chestnuts in the creamy soup and I'm also mildly obsessed with thyme so it seemed appropriate (thyme tastes like coziness and warmth and I use any and every excuse to use it my dishes all winter long).

Vegan Roasted Chestnut Soup - adapted from Mark Bittman

10 large chestnuts
2 tbs olive oil
2 cups chopped celery
½ cup chopped onion
4 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper
ground thyme

+ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Using a sharp knife, carefully cut an X into the flat side of each chestnut.  Roast in an open pan for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the shell begins to open away from the meat.  Remove the outer and inner skins from the chestnuts while still warm.
+ Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the celery, onion, and a good amount of salt and pepper.  Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the onion is translucent, stirring occasionally.  Add the stock and chestnuts (reserve a whole or partial chestnut for garnish if so desired), bring to a boil and cover partially.  Reduce heat and simmer until the chestnuts are mushy, about 30 minutes.
+ Puree the soup with a stick blender.  Continue to cook until desired thickness is reached.  Season to taste.
+ Serve steaming hot in big bowls on a cold, snowy night.  Top with chopped chestnut and a little dash of thyme, and pair with a deep, round glass of Spanish Cabernet Sauvignon.