The Native American edible chestnut, Castanae dentate, was all but wiped out in the early part of the last century by a blight, which, sadly, decimated almost all the chestnut orchards in the United States and Canada. Today, there is a cluster of growers in Northern California dedicated to bringing them back, and if I see true American chestnuts at my local farmers market, I’ll make friends with the grower and bring home a pound or two. Why? Because chestnuts are cool – I mean hot!
From October through December, fresh imported chestnuts will be in the market too, and if you can find them fresh, treat yourself and your guests to these little gems. (Italy is one of the largest exporters to North American, France is another).
Chestnuts have a sweet, mellow and earthy flavor that lend themselves to many preparations, from soups to pastas to dessert cakes and fillings – but it takes some labor and practice to extract the smooth, clean nuts inside.
To shell fresh chestnuts, you can dry-roast them in a hot oven or boil them so their outer shell and papery (and somewhat bitter) skin can be removed. Either way, they need to be shelled while still warm.
To dry roast chestnuts: score the flat top of each chestnut with an “X”, toss them in a cast iron skillet and roast them in a 425-degree oven for 25-30 minutes, shaking the pan half way through the cooking. The shells will develop a char and open slightly, which indicates they’re ready to be shelled, one by one, still hot from the oven. Using a good quality paring knife, tear away the tough outer shell and gently peel off the papery skin.
To boil chestnuts: Score the flat top of each chestnut with an ”X”, toss them in a saucepan and add enough cold water to cover them by an inch. Bring just to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered, for 25-30 minutes until the outer shell and inner skin have opened enough to reveal the chestnut inside. Use a slotted spoon to transfer a few at a time to a paper towel, and peel them, one at a time, removing the tough outer shell and gently peeling away their papery skin.
Note: Do the best you can… if you are in danger of your chestnuts falling apart and crumbling into a big mess, you can leave a little bit of the papery skin on – for this preparation, you’ll be straining the chestnut soup regardless, which should remove an remnants of the skins.
Chestnut-Fennel soup “cappuccino”, with truffled foamy milk
For the soup:
1 lb. fresh, shelled chestnuts (about 25)
1 small fennel bulb, white part only, core removed, diced, about 1 cup
1 small onion (or 1 large shallot), diced, about ½ cup
A little filtered water
1-2 Tablespoons best-quality unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground white pepper for seasoning
1 quart vegetable stock or chicken stock
Truffle butter, about 1 tablespoon
For the foamy milk:
½ cup whole milk
Truffle salt and/or truffle pâté
In a heavy-bottom saucepan or Le Creuset pot, melt 1-2 T. butter over medium heat. Add the fennel and onion, a pinch of salt and pepper and sweat (cook slowly) over low-medium heat, covered, till soft, but not browned, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. (You can add a little filtered water if it looks dry).
Add the shelled chestnuts and enough stock to cover by an inch, and bring to a raging boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 30-40 minutes, till the chestnuts are soft and begin to break apart.
In a blender or powerful Vitamixer, puree the hot soup in batches (or all at once – depending on the size of the blender) – being careful not to burn yourself! (I place a dishtowel over the lid and top when purée-ing a hot soup to hold it down and minimize the danger). Little by little, about a cup at a time, strain the hot soup through a fine-mesh strainer into a container, using the back of a 2-oz ladle or a small rubber spatula to push the mixture through. Place a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the chestnut/fennel purée to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate immediately. The mixture will firm up slightly as it gets cold.
Heat the soup in a saucepan over medium-low heat till hot (but not too hot!), thinning it out with stock if it appears too thick. It should be thick – like a soup – but not too thick. It should be pourable, but rich. Transfer the hot soup to a liquid measuring cup with a spout. Carefully pour the soup – about 2-oz per serving – into pre-warmed cappuccino cups, filling each one ¾ full. Add a small “nub” of truffle butter to each cup.
Warm the milk in a separate saucepan over medium-low heat, just below a boil. Pour the milk into a small metal cappuccino pitcher. Use an Aeolatte to froth the milk into a stiff foam – as you would when making a cappuccino. Add a pinch of truffle salt and truffle pâté, fold it in carefully and garnish each “cappuccino” with the truffle-flavored foamy milk. Serve as an amuse bouche, as a gift to your guests, like I do.