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.

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