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.

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Kohlrabi as Comfort Food

kohlrabi 1 11.16.13It’s not that I needed comforting when I pulled out kohlrabi again this week, but I liked the texture of it when I sautéed it as slices last week, layering the slices with sautéed broccoli rabe and a thin covering of swiss cheese in a panini.

As I bit into the sandwich, the kohlrabi slices reminded me of thinly sliced potatoes when they’re cooked similarly.

And it’s probably that thought of potatoes that moodled around in my subconscious for a few days that made me think to mash the kohlrabi this week.

So I started off as I would with potatoes. I peeled the kohlrabi bulb (stems and leaves already removed when I got it), then diced, put into a pot, covered with water and a lid, brought it up to a boil, then, lid off, simmered til tender, about 25 minutes or so.

While that was cooking, I pulled out a head of escarole.

Yes, greens again. I am inevitably drawn to greens over and over again. They are often part of comfort-food combinations for me: greens and beans, or greens cooked down and added to something mashed, like, say, potatoes or…kohlrabi.

Raw, escarole is bitter, and can add contrast to a salad of mixed greens. When cooked, it mellows.

And mellow sounded good, as did adding a leek and garlic to mellow along with.

So I warmed a pan over low heat and coated with extra virgin olive oil, adding five minced garlic cloves, followed by chopped  leek (cut in half lengthwise, rinsing dirt from between the leaves, then each half cut in half lengthwise again, and chopping). Kept it over low heat, added a little salt, doing both to keep the garlic and leek from cooking/browning too quickly, while I chopped and added the escarole (cutting the leaves in half, and then chopping).

When everything was in and cooked down some, I seasoned with salt and pepper, I put the lid on, turned the heat up to medium, and allowed it to continue cooking, adding a little water after about 10 minutes when the bottom of the pan seemed dry. Lid back on til greens were tender. All together, between 20 and 30 minutes.

In the meantime, the kohlrabi was ready. Drained that, and put it back in the pot to mash with a potato masher. And, really, it was more smashed than mashed, being fibrous rather than flaky, but tender all the same.

Into a bowl, salt and pepper, and a little drizzle of extra virgin olive oil stirred in.

kohlrabi 2 11.16.13So good just like that. A sweet, light broccoli, cabbagey taste, even a little like corn.

By then, the escarole mix was ready. I used about half (the other half will likely find its way into a soup), stirred that into the smashed kohlrabi.

Light, sweet taste of kohlrabi and deeper, sautéed flavors of the escarole, leeks and garlic.

I may not have needed comforting, but it felt good just the same.

Easy Beets and Potatoes

beets 6 10.26.13One of the nice things about beets is that you can find them in convenient eight-ounce packages, steamed and peeled and “ready to eat hot or cold,” as the package says.

Now, beets aren’t a very inconvenient vegetable to begin with, though they may have a  little of that perception, because, if you’re working with red ones, then you’re wary about beet juice and staining. But you’re likely not wearing your best clothes if you’re peeling beets, and, as far as dying your hands, well, really it all pretty much rinses right off under running water. Other than peeling them before or after they’ve cooked, they’re basically on their own while they’re simmering on the stove or roasting in the oven for an hour or so, while you go about other things.

But if beets weren’t at the farmers market when you were there, then the pre-packaged baby ones are perfect…and a nice partner with the small new potatoes that you did find at the farmers market, “you” in this scenario meaning me.

This combo is super easy. I rinsed and peeled a handful of the small new potatoes, put them in a small pot with enough water to cover them, and, once the water came to a boil, simmered them til they were tender, between 10 and 15 minutes. But check them sooner, because they’re small and cook quickly.

In the meantime, I opened the package of baby beets and drained and rinsed them in the strainer.

When the potatoes were done, I drained them, placed them in a bowl, mixing with rice vinegar, so the potatoes would absorb it while still warm, and salt and pepper. Rice vinegar is my go-to vinegar. I love its bright crispness.

beets 2 10.26.13I added the beets to the potatoes. Sprinkled thinly sliced scallion over top, as well as marjoram leaves (lots of marjoram in our garden!). Then salt and pepper, a few more shakes of vinegar, and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Stirred lightly, in an effort to try to preserve the whiteness of the potatoes, but they inevitably took on some of the red, and are maybe all the prettier for it.

Beets and potatoes. Easy to make…and easy to eat.

Golden Beet

beets 5 10.21.13I’ve mentioned before how, when I go to the farmers market, it’s not unusual to buy more than I can realistically cook and eat in a week. I can’t seem to help myself.

And that’s ok. There are worse vices.

But sometimes an extra appointment comes up. Then unexpected details to handle. There’s still work, and other already scheduled commitments. And it must all filter through the low energy and stuffy head of a fall cold.

Leaving little pockets of time to keep up with the basics: laundry, paying bills, and catching up on the last few episodes of Modern Family from last season before allowing myself to begin watching the new episodes.

Things back up.

Some things, like posting to this blog, are temporarily put on hold.

And just when it feels like this slump is never going to end…it does.

A friend emails, would I like to meet for lunch. And the date that is free for her is free for me, too. Yes!, I reply.

Clarity regarding what had previously been a tedious and depleting situation comes in, opening it up and bringing a perspective and lightness to it.

I start feeling more sustained energy.

And, with a kind of actual fierceness, I look to my refrigerator to see how all my produce has been holding up, because I refuse to lose a vegetable to this slump!

The broccoli rabe is a little limp, but otherwise fine, and I cook it one evening with beans. The next morning, before I go to work, I shave off parts of a head of cauliflower that are starting to form spots, cut the rest into small pieces and roast, along with some potatoes. I boil green beans. They become part of a salad that I bring to my book group that evening.

And I roast, in a foil packet, with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil, a beautiful golden beet that I had bought several weeks before. Not looking  as vibrant as when I brought it home, but still firm.

I peel and slice it into 1/4″ rounds that I slightly overlap on a plate, sprinkle with salt and pepper, thin slices of a scallion, and a small handful of slivered almonds. A light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

beets 1 10.21.13A little bite, a little crunch. The sweetness of the beet and mellow richness of the oil. I sigh, enjoying each golden bite, savoring, after days of extra effort, the pleasure of simple and satisfying.

Figs in Salad

figs 1 9.23.13My mother visited this past week, and we had a wonderful time. Did some shopping. Toured a local mansion. Ate at home. Ate out. Ate a lot!

When my sister drove her home Saturday, I knew I was in need of much lighter eating.

I also wanted to get in one more fig post. But the fig availability window was closing.

They were no longer at my local Trader Joe’s, and the two remaining packages at a favorite natural foods store were starting to go bad. I was open to using dried, but thought I’d try a nearby Fresh Market first. If nothing else, my husband and I would have a nice drive on a sunny day.

Well, they’d had fresh figs, we were told, and would have more in a few days. However, they did have dried mission figs, and would we be interested in checking out the dried Sierra figs they’d just gotten in. “Ok.”

The guy was so nice about going to get the box of Sierra figs, and then opening them up just for us to try, we couldn’t not buy some! And some mission figs, too. The mission figs were a purple-black, and the Sierra figs the light brown of the inside of a chestnut, both kinds more moist than you might expect when you think dried.

We weren’t very far down the road on our way back home, when my husband saw a chalkboard sign on the side of the road announcing “Figs” in big letters. A little produce stand we’d never stopped at before. With fresh mission figs right at the cash register.

We arrived home with an abundance of figs.

At home, I also had an interesting and new (to me) squash that I’d picked up on one of my and Mom’s day trips. A red kuri squash. I had been unable to resist its gorgeous red-orange skin and perfectly accessible size.

When I read about it online later, I found references to it tasting like chestnuts, and being a good substitute for sweet potatoes. You could, of course, stuff, roast or purée, like other squashes, but I particularly liked one food blogger’s preference for slicing it, skin on, and sautéing.

So I pulled the squash out. The red-orange and purple-black and chestnut-brown colors seemed a beautiful combination together, and the nuttiness of the squash would complement the figs.

And because I’d eaten so generously the past week, I went with a salad.

A salad of waning summer’s end-of-season fresh figs and incoming fall’s dried figs and squash.

figs 4 9.23.13I cut the squash in half, scooped out the seeds, then sliced into 1/8″ to 1/4″ slices, sautéing them in batches in a pan over medium-high heat lightly coated with oil. A sprinkle of salt and pepper. A few minutes on each side, getting a nice golden brown. Set aside.

I sliced the fresh figs in half, put them cut-side down into the pan, also cooking til a golden brown, and set aside.

I tore green leaf lettuce into bite-sized pieces and laid across a platter. I draped squash slices on the green, then added the sautéed figs. I cut a few dried mission and Sierra figs in half, added those. A scattering of pistachios. And chopped fresh mint sprinkled over. I didn’t even season. It had enough seasoning and juiciness from the squash and figs.

The roasted flavor of the squash and cooked figs gave a nice depth and contrast to the fresh lettuce and mint. Pistachios added just enough richness. The dried figs, a chewy contrast.

And a couple days later, what a pleasure to wrap up what little was left of that delicious combination into a warm whole-wheat tortilla and enjoy it all over again!