Cozy Little Rich Dish…With Chestnuts

As it gets closer to Christmas, and days are more and more full of things to do, fitting them in before and after other things, it was nice to be able to pull out butternut squash risotto from the freezer in the morning (left over from Thanksgiving) and leave it to thaw in the fridge for dinner later.

chestnuts 3 12.21.13I then continued to my nearby natural foods store before going to work, where I bought, among other items I needed, about three-quarters of a pound of chestnuts from a small basket of them tucked in with the produce. A nice addition to the risotto.

After work, it was nice to know I was coming home to something practically done for dinner. And it did come together pretty easily. I did need to roast chestnuts, but there weren’t that many, and it doesn’t really take that long.

I preheated the oven to 400°, cut an X into the chestnuts. Onto a pan, and into the oven for 15 minutes. When still warm, but able to handle, peeled away the shell and the papery inner layer. Sliced the chestnuts.

I heated extra-virgin olive oil over medium-low heat, to which I added three minced garlic cloves. Added the chestnuts in as I sliced them, brought the heat up to medium. Added a little salt. And also fresh rosemary, maybe a teaspoon’s worth. Stirred it all to coat with oil, warm through.

Then into the pan, four cups of the leftover risotto and two cups of vegetable stock. Brought it to a simmer, adjusted seasoning. When it was warmed through, I added a half-cup of half and half.

chestnuts 1 12.21.13Scooped into two bowls, for my husband and me. Sprinkled grated cheese on top.

What is there to say? Creamy risotto. Mellow garlic. Soft, sweet chestnuts.

Cozy little rich dish.

Chestnuts in a Glass

I came home. The house was quiet. Late afternoon. Had done some Christmas shopping. I was on my own for the evening.

chestnuts 1 12.14.13A set of martini glasses was washed and clean and sitting on the counter, and had been since Thanksgiving, waiting for cabinet space to be rearranged and a place found for them  again.

An individual-sized panettone was off to the side in its festive red packaging.

My oven was fully working again, the repair person having been by earlier in the day to install the replacement part. The oven had broken two days before Thanksgiving…a common tale, my repair person assured me. It had remained unplugged the past two weeks, so no igniter to light the gas burners on the stove top. I had become adept at lighting them with a match.

I remembered the bottle of scotch-infused pears still in the fridge, mostly pear slices now with just a little scotch in the bottom, left over from a Thanksgiving cocktail.

And that funny little package of vacuum-packed chestnuts. A curiosity. A tight little, brain-looking cluster captured in plastic.

This was the inventory I was taking as I began to putter in the kitchen wondering what I’d like to make for myself.

It was obviously not going to be dinner just yet.

Instead I thought of the flambéed chestnuts David Rocco had made in the Dolce Vita episode I referred to in my last post.

I had never flambéed anything before that I can remember, but I felt fully competent, having been manually lighting my burners for two weeks.

So into a sturdy pan, I separated the clumped and dense chestnuts, which I tossed with a tablespoon of sugar, then poured in the remaining scotch from the bottle in the fridge, which held a hint of pear in it. It equalled about a quarter cup, but I needed a little more, so I added as much from a bottle in the cabinet. Then heated it all up over a low flame for just a few minutes to warm it up. Because I found out (trial by error), that cold alcohol doesn’t light.

Turned off the heat. Lit a match and brought it carefully to the surface of the chestnuts and scotch. A quiet crackling. Sometimes a wavering of air over the surface. Sometimes the hint of a blue flame. It was a quiet effect, not the dramatic one in movies. And captivating, because it was almost invisible, but not quite.

When it faded away, I cut half the panettone into slices that I layered with chestnuts in a martini glass, and spooned some of the warmed scotch over.

To that I added one thin slice of scotch-soaked pear.

The drier texture of the panettone studded with raisins absorbed the scotch, and offered something to balance it. The nutty, soft chestnuts. All mellow together.

And then that slice of pear with its potent punch!

Fresh-roasted chestnuts would’ve been that much nicer, but for a quick, elegant little treat…this was just fine.

Castagnaccio: Chestnut Flour Cake

chestnuts 1 12.7.13I was home a few weeks ago during the afternoon, and had the Cooking Channel on as background while I did some paperwork at my desk. I hardly ever have TV on as background. Either I’m watching it, or it’s off. It’s distracting to me otherwise, and I can’t fully focus on the task at hand.

But, maybe because it was just me in the house that day (my husband works from home, so the rhythm of two people going about their business is often enough going on), and maybe because I don’t often have the luxury of just having cooking shows on in the middle of the day, I turned the TV on.

I half-listened to a few episodes that day, but the one that took me from my desk and put me in front of the TV was one that was all on chestnuts.

It was an episode of David Rocco’s Dolce Vita. The show features Italian-Canadian Rocco cooking and eating in Italy.

I was mesmerized by all the things he made with chestnuts. It was chestnut harvest time, and, like anything when it comes into season, while you have it, you find all kinds of ways to use it.

I don’t think I knew how taken I am with chestnuts until I found myself sitting there, enthralled.

Roasted chestnuts were part of every Christmas Eve growing up, whether the family gathering was at our house, my grandparents’, or my aunt and uncle’s. The chestnuts, so inevitably and informally placed in the middle of the table on a well-worn cookie sheet, hot and ready to peel, echoed the generations before, pulling roasted chestnuts from ovens, or fireplaces, or outside fires.

Peeling away the shell, where the X had been slit into it with a knife so that they roasted and didn’t burst. The soft, sweet texture inside. All of us around the table. Peeling. Eating.

And they were hot. But best hot, because the outer shell and inner papery layer were easier to pull away. Some came out whole and beautiful. Some in pieces, with the papery part more challenging to peel off. Some were burned. You ate around that.

Until I began to see chestnuts in recent years, already peeled, either jarred, canned, or frozen, I hadn’t really thought about anything other than roasting. I came across a recipe for chestnut soup, and tried that one year. Very good.

I became conscious of chestnut flour at my local natural foods store, but intentionally didn’t buy it, waiting until I had something specific to use it for.

And David Rocco’s chestnut episode brought it to me: castagnaccio, a chestnut flour cake.

I was intrigued, printed out the recipe, and downloaded all the others from the show as well, knowing that castagnaccio would be my dessert for book group the following week, and that chestnuts would be my next food trilogy here.

This cake is simple to make, and a cake in the sense of something formed into a shape rather than something that rises. The list of ingredients: chestnut flour, raisins, pine nuts, rosemary, orange zest.

Castagnaccio

Adapted from two David Rocco versions (slight variation in proportions), one from the Cooking Channel’s website, one from his cookbook, Made in Italy, in which he refers to it as Tuscan Chestnut Pizza, a possibly more accurate physical description.

  • 14 ounces chestnut flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • Leaves from a sprig or 2 of fresh rosemary
  • Zest of 1 orange

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl combine the flour, sugar, salt, and water. You can add one- to two-thirds of the orange zest to the batter, or save it all to sprinkle on top. Whisk the batter until silky smooth in consistency, pancake-batter-like.

Add the olive oil to a round pizza pan. (I have a paella pan, whose base is 12″, which turned out to be a perfect size.) Heat the oiled pan in the oven for 5 minutes. The oil and pan should be so hot that when you add the batter, it sizzles.

Smooth the batter evenly over the pan. Sprinkle the raisins, pine nuts, rosemary, and orange zest (all or whatever didn’t get stirred into the batter) on top.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. It should be golden on top, and pull away from the pan.

I brought this to my book group, with a container of vanilla gelato.

chestnuts 3 12.7.13This was a first for all of us, so we took that first bite and really considered it.

Dense, nutty. Raisins added a juicy sweetness. Richness from the pine nuts. Brightness from the orange zest. Woodsy rosemary. Not a cake in the traditional sense, but once we got used to that chestnut base, I think we all enjoyed the combination…and the gelato was a nice touch!

My husband and I ate the leftover castagnaccio that week. Sometimes with the gelato, but mostly on its own. I came to like this more and more with each piece.

It is of the season: nuts, dried fruit, citrus, hearty herb.

I want to make it again.

I’m thinking for Christmas Day.