On a dining room sideboard I have a rather large and splendid lazy Susan which I used for condiments when I did Chinese meals for the family or a group of friends. I also used it for the occasional beef fondue.
Nowadays it sits there mainly for decoration, also holding in its central space a Mongolian hot-pot with charcoal burner on which I used to do steamboat fondues. It’s an impressive utensil I found at an Anglican Church sale many years ago, one of my better jumble sale buys.
Before, during and after Christmas I use the lazy Susan for displaying half a dozen kinds of nuts. In the large central area I arrange a mound of the largest chestnuts I can find, polishing them with a dry cloth until they shine nicely. In the moat-like space round the central part I place the other nuts in their shells: pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, roasted peanuts, Brazil nuts — and pecans, when I can find them.
The pistachios (my favourite nut) are the first to go and the peanuts also dwindle rather quickly — I have to keep replenishing both. By mid-January everything has been used up except the chestnuts. So this is the time of year when I start to think about chestnut recipes — which means I have a huge choice because chestnuts are the most versatile of the nut clan.
They can be turned into soups, or braised and served as a vegetable. They make a popular and colourful dish when simmered with Brussels sprouts. Chestnut purées are an excellent garnish for game and other meats and they can also be used in a wide variety of desserts.
The reason for their versatility is that chestnuts, unlike other nuts, are low in fat and have a high carbohydrate content. Most nuts contain 50-70 grs of fat per 100 grs, but there are only 1.5 grs of fat in 100 grs of chestnuts.
However, 100 grs of chestnuts take in 42 grs of carbohydrates and it is this high starch content that makes them so useful for the cook.
But chestnuts have one big disadvantage for cooks: they have to be shelled and peeled. Although this is not the terrible chore amateur cooks make it out to be, it does take up a bit of extra time.
Chestnuts can be shelled by baking them or boiling them. Cut a cross on the round side with the point of a knife. Put them in a single layer on any kind of oven dish and add a wineglass of water.
Bake them in a very hot oven for 15 minutes or until the shells open. Keep checking on the chestnuts because some of them will open before the others. When they are cool enough to handle, shell and peel them.
You can also take the shells off with boiling water. Cut a cross in each chestnut as before, put them into a pan of boiling water and leave them for seven minutes. Take out a few at a time and shell and peel them as soon as they are cool enough to handle.
Bear in mind that the chestnuts will absorb some water with the boiling method. Depending on the recipe you are using, you may not want the added moisture.
chestnut purée recipe
A chestnut purée is excellent with all game dishes, but it also goes very nicely with just about any kind of meat. Try it with roast lamb, chicken or even beef. You will need: 500 grs chestnuts, 250 mls stock, 100 grs butter, 2 tbsps roasting pan juices, a little liquid cream, salt and pepper to taste.
Shell and peel the chestnuts as described above (or by any method you already use) and simmer them in a small amount of water until they are soft. You do not want water-logged chestnuts for this dish. When soft, put the chestnuts through the finest blade of a mincer or do them in food processor. Transfer the minced chestnuts to a saucepan and add the stock. Stir with wooden spoon until well mixed and very hot.
Just before serving, add the butter in one piece, the roasting pan juices and the cream. Stir continuously, letting the butter melt very slowly so that it amalgamates nicely and slowly with the other ingredients. When everything is well absorbed by the chestnut purée, add salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Chestnut croquettes can be served with a salad as a vegetarian main course, or you can have them with game, poultry and meat. You will need: 500 grs chestnuts, 200-300 mls milk, 2 eggs, herbs to taste (fresh thyme, parsley, oregano or sage), a little nutmeg, breadcrumbs, some flour, salt and pepper to taste.
Shell and peel the chestnuts as in the previous recipe. Put the purée into a saucepan and add the milk and the herbs of your choice. Fresh thyme is especially suitable. The quantity of milk will depend on how thick the purée is. You may not need the full amount of milk, so add it slowly to begin with.
Cook the mixture over a low heat until it is thick enough to come way from the sides of the saucepan. Mix in a few scrapings of nutmeg and extra herbs if you think the mixture needs them.
When the mixture is cool enough to handle, form it into round or oval shaped croquettes, coat them with flour, dip into beaten egg and then into breadcrumbs. Deep-fry in olive oil.
The chestnut purée can be used to make an interesting stand-by spread suitable as a starter or as a snack. Mince two pieces of cooked chicken breast fillets and combine them in a bowl with about 200 grs of the chestnut purée, three tablespoons of finely chopped celery, home-made mayonnaise to taste, plus salt and pepper.
Serve with Quely biscuits, cream crackers, hot toast or pieces of crisply toasted pita bread.
There are recipes galore for chestnut soups. This one is hot and comforting on cold winter days. You will need: 500 grs chestnuts, 4 medium carrots cut into smallish pieces, 3 medium sized potatoes cut into quarters, 1 litre chicken stock, 1 level tsp sweet paprika (pimentón dulce), chopped parsley or thyme to taste and few chopped roasted chestnuts.
Shell and peel the chestnuts as already described. Put them into a saucepan with the carrots, potatoes, paprika, half of the stock and simmer for 45 minutes or until the chestnuts are soft.
Blitz the mixture for a short time in a blender, or put through a vegetable mill into another saucepan. Add the rest of the stock. Stir in salt, pepper and herbs to taste and bring the soup to boiling point. Before serving, sprinkle some of the chopped roasted chestnuts on each bowl or soup plate.
Chestnuts with apples soup
Another English soup combines chestnuts with apples. You will need: 500 grs chestnuts, 2 litres beef or chicken stock, 1 stick celery, 2 Granny Smith apples (peeled cored and sliced), 50 grs butter, 150 mls cream, salt and pepper to taste plus bread croutons crisply fried in butter.
Shell and peel the chestnuts as above and cook in the stock with the chopped celery for 45 minutes or until they are soft. Meanwhile cook the sliced apples in the butter with a sprinkling of pepper. Blitz the chestnuts, celery and apples in a blender, return to the saucepan and add the cream.
Taste and correct seasoning if necessary. If the soup is too thin, simmer uncovered until it thickens. If it is too thick, dilute it with a little stock. Serve with the croutons.
Turkey and chestnut soup
A turkey and chestnut soup that was designed for using up leftover Christmas or Thanksgiving roast turkey, can also be made with the turkey pieces that are available all year round at El Corte Inglés and some other supermarkets.
You will need: 1.5 litres turkey or chicken stock, 250 grs minced turkey meat, 1 large egg yolk, 150 mls cream, finely chopped parsley, half tsp paprika, 200 grs chopped well-cooked chestnuts, 50 grs butter, salt and pepper to taste.
Put the minced turkey into a blender, add some stock and blitz until smooth. Pour this mixture into a saucepan and add the rest of the stock.
Bring to the boil. Beat the egg yolk and the cream and whisk in a ladleful of stock. Take the saucepan off the heat and stir in the egg and cream mixture.
Stir over a low heat until the soup thickens slightly, but don’t let it come back to the boil or the egg will curdle. Add the other ingredients and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Braised chestnuts can be used as a vegetable. In a saucepan or frying pan arrange 500 grs of shelled and peeled chestnuts in a single layer. Add enough stock to cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time.
Add more stock as needed, but at the end it should be reduced to a glaze. Just before serving, slowly swirl in 50 grs unsalted butter cut into small pieces.
There’s also a sweet side to the chestnut season. Chestnut truffles are a simple sweet to serve with after-dinner coffee. You will need: 500 grs chestnuts, milk and water, 50 grs butter, 1 egg yolk, 150grs icing sugar, 1 or 2 tbsps rum, powdered chocolate for coating.
Shell and peel the chestnuts as before and simmer in water with a little milk for 45 minutes or until tender. Drain the chestnuts and sieve or blitz in a blender.
Cream the butter, beat in the egg yolk, then add the sieved chestnuts and sieved icing sugar alternately. Add rum and work until the mixture forms firm paste. Leave to harden a little then form into smallish balls and roll in powdered chocolate.
Another simple after-dinner nibble is Italian chestnut fritters.
Pound 250 grs of well-cooked chestnuts in a mortar or mash with fork. Add sufficient milk to make a thick batter and stir in a pinch of salt, a few seedless raisins and a few chopped pistachio nuts.
Drop spoonfuls of this mixture into deepish hot oil and fry until golden brown. Drain and serve hot, sprinkled with castor sugar.