Romance flirts with food at all times of the year, and each season boasts its own aphrodisiac.
As Christmas approaches, Mel Torme croons seductively about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. With visions of sugar plums, dreamers buy fresh chestnuts when they make their annual appearance in the supermarket come mid-November. January finds most of those same chestnuts in the garbage can.
Mel Torme doesn’t tell you that chestnuts have two skins (one very bitter) that must be removed. The song’s lyrics don’t explain that as the nut cools, it becomes increasingly difficult to peel. And if you take them off the fire too soon, half-cooked chestnuts don’t make very good eating.
So shouldn’t we just forget the whole thing? No. Making chestnuts taste good isn’t difficult. It’s just not a song.
What is so sexy about chestnuts? Perhaps it’s the mild, earthy flavor blended with an unusual subtle spiciness. Or maybe it’s the hard-to-get, seasonal, imported lure. Possibly it’s because if treated with love, skill and finesse, they respond in the most delightful way.
Chestnuts are indeed nuts. They grow on trees in a spiky outer shell which, in the fall, dries and splits off. The inside shell is the beautiful, lustrous brown used to describe one of the most desirable, romantic hair colors. The horse chestnuts common to our area appear similar, but are inedible.
Before the 20th century, native chestnut forests covered the eastern United States from Maine to Florida to eastern Arkansas. In 1904, chestnut saplings from the Far East were planted on Long Island. Along with them came a fungus which ate into the bark of chestnut trees, girdling and killing them.
By 1940, the American chestnut trees were all but gone (although efforts are under way to revive them as a commercial crop). Today, the best chestnuts are thought to be those imported from Italy, although they grow in other Mediterranean countries as well.
Fresh is best, but chestnuts are also sometimes found frozen, canned and candied. Canned chestnuts include whole peeled in water, unsweetened puree and sweetened chestnut cream.
In their native Italy, chestnuts are cooked and eaten in the same way we eat peanuts in the shell. Unlike most nuts, the edible portion has little fat, and can be substituted for potatoes as a starchy vegetable.
European cooks use chestnuts in many imaginative ways: in poultry stuffing, as a vegetable to be eaten alone, as a flavor enhancer and thickener of sauces and soups, and as a dessert and candy ingredient.
But first, they have to be peeled. Peeling chestnuts is tedious - not difficult, not disgusting, just tedious. It demands all of your visual attention, but you can entertain yourself by listening to Mel Torme Christmas albums, and you need not work alone.
The hard outer shell is trivial, but covering the cream-colored chestnut is a brown membrane that is bitter and unpleasant. This skin wants to stick like, well, a skin.
Here is the easiest way that I have found to peel chestnuts: Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. While the water is heating, with a reasonably sharp knife, cut an X or a couple of slashes in each chestnut. It doesn’t matter which side you cut; the reason is so the water will penetrate the shell to help loosen the inner skin.
Drop about five chestnuts at a time into the simmering water and let them cook for at least 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, remove a chestnut. As soon as it’s cool enough to handle, remove the hard outer shell and peel away the brown inner skin, using a sharp knife if necessary. If any chestnut is reluctant to give up its inner skin, drop it back into the water; it will gladly surrender the next time around. (If the chestnuts are overcooked, though, they will become mushy and hard to peel.)
Repeat until all of the chestnuts are peeled. You can stop at any time and continue later. Peeled chestnuts can be stored in the refrigerator until you can stand to look at them again, or they can be wrapped and frozen.
Chestnuts must be fully cooked to taste good. I prefer a “flavor-neutral” preliminary cooking by braising in milk.
Chestnuts should always be delicately seasoned. For savory dishes, an infusion of celery or thyme, bay leaf and parsley in stock or cream, or perhaps a pinch of nutmeg, is nice. Onion and garlic generally are not used. A pinch of sugar is often added to enhance the spicy flavor.
For sweet preparations, vanilla, rum, cognac or other liqueurs, and chocolate, butter or cream elevate a chestnut puree to something ethereal.
If chestnuts roasting on an open fire still haunt your romantic soul, here’s how: Let the fire burn down to hot embers. Use a special chestnut pan with an extra-long handle and holes in the bottom. Cut a ring around the unshelled chestnuts, making sure not to damage the kernels. Roast the chestnuts in a single layer on the hot embers, tossing them frequently, until they are thoroughly cooked, 45 minutes to one hour.
Or you can take the easy way out and cut an X in each chestnut, spread them on a baking sheet and roast in a 425-degree oven for about 20 to 25 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel and eat.
Just don’t expect to hear anyone singing about chestnuts roasting on the middle rack.
1 pound peeled chestnuts
1 cup milk
In a medium saucepan combine chestnuts and milk and simmer, covered, 30 to 40 minutes. The chestnuts should be tender when pierced with the tip of a knife; add more milk, if necessary, to keep them covered. Cool and drain, reserving the milk.
Use whole chestnuts for scallops and chestnuts in champagne and cream (recipe follows), as garnishes or in stuffing.
For a puree, process in a food processor. If puree is very stiff, add some of the reserved milk. Chestnut puree will thicken as it cools. Store airtight in the refrigerator or freeze.
Chestnuts will keep for up to a week refrigerated or for about a year if frozen.
Yield: About 2 cups chestnut puree.
Savory Chestnut Puree
I love a savory chestnut puree as an alternative to potatoes or yams along with turkey, goose, or duck. Only the freshest chestnuts can be used for this dish.
2 cups chestnut puree (see recipe above)
1/2 cup milk, reserved from cooking the chestnuts
4 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon thyme
3 to 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Simmer parsley, bay leaf and thyme in reserved milk for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain out the herbs, reserving the milk.
Beat the flavored milk into the cooled chestnut puree. Heat gently in a heavy-bottomed pan or a double boiler. If the puree is too thick, stir in more milk or stock until the desired consistency is reached.
Just before serving, beat in the butter, salt and pepper to taste, and a pinch of sugar if needed. Serve at once.
Yield: 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 396 calories, 18.79 grams fat (43 percent fat calories), 4 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrate, 48 milligrams cholesterol, 36 milligrams sodium.
Scallops and Chestnuts in Champagne and Cream
This is a very pretty and unusual dish. Use scallops and chestnuts of about the same size for the most striking presentation. It needs nothing but excellent French bread and butter for an accompaniment. If you really want another vegetable, baked cucumbers would be outstanding.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup shallots, minced
1 pound scallops
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
2/3 cup dry champagne
1 cup braised chestnuts (rinsed and drained if canned)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in heavy-bottomed saute pan. Add shallots and saute until tender but not browned.
Add scallops, tomato and champagne to the shallots and braise gently until the scallops are barely cooked. Remove scallops, leaving tomato, shallots and liquid in pan.
Add chestnuts. Bring to a boil and reduce liquid until it becomes syrupy, stirring occasionally as needed. Try not to break the chestnuts.
Add cream and reduce to form a thick sauce. Return scallops to the sauce (this will thin the sauce somewhat) and cook to heat through and reduce to the desired thickness. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 421 calories, 28.77 grams fat (62 percent fat calories), 21 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrate, 134 milligrams cholesterol, 216 milligrams sodium.
Chestnuts make a haunting dessert. The chestnut flavor, assertive and earthy, is enhanced by rum and lightened with whipped cream. A little semisweet chocolate intensifies everything. A New Zealand pavlova with a French chestnut mousse cream is an unlikely pairing but is a satisfying light dessert after a big holiday meal. The chestnut mousse can also be eaten as a stand-alone dessert paired with a few Christmas cookies.
2 egg whites
1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
4 tablespoons boiling water
Chestnut Mousse Cream (recipe follows)
Shaved semisweet chocolate, for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place all ingredients (except Chestnut Mousse Cream and chocolate) into a medium-sized bowl and beat with an electric mixer until the mixture is smooth, shiny and stiff, about 12 minutes. Meanwhile, cover a cookie sheet with parchment or waxed paper, brush lightly with melted butter, and dust with a little cornstarch (shake off excess).
Spoon meringue mixture onto prepared sheet, forming a 9-inch circle. Bake in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 300 degrees and bake for another 45 minutes. Turn off oven and let cool in the oven.
To assemble the pavlova, put the meringue on a serving dish. Spread or pipe the chestnut mousse cream over the top. Sprinkle lavishly with shaved semisweet chocolate. Serve at once.
Yield: 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 548 calories, 29.89 grams fat (49 percent fat calories), 4 grams protein, 63 grams carbohydrate, 109 milligrams cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium.
Chestnut Mousse Cream
1 cup chestnut puree (see recipe above)
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum
2 cups heavy cream
In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the puree, sugar and rum until smooth.
In a chilled bowl, beat the cream until beater marks just start to appear. Add the chestnut mixture and beat just until stiff peaks form when the beater is raised.
Chestnut mousse cream can be stored for 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Yield: 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 413 calories, 29.84 grams fat (65 percent fat calories), 2 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrate, 109 milligrams cholesterol, 31 milligrams sodium.
MEMO: Former restaurant owner Billie Moreland is a Spokane-based food writer and consultant.