04 November 2007

Creamy Autumn Chestnut Soup

With Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it might be nice to talk about a recipe that could grace your table, as it will mine. I use the word grace because this recipe is elegant and satisfying, yet it's not at all pretentious or fancy.

If you were me, growing up chestnuts were something you sang about in a song, and that was it. Sure, you knew they were supposed to be eaten (or at least roasted on an open fire), but mainly they just dropped their prickly shells from trees and never made it to your own table. It wasn't until I went to Italy when I was twenty that I actually realized what a chestnut was and how it was eaten. It was a bitter cold January and I bought some from one of the many of the streetside vendors, holding their hot roasted shells as hand warmers in my new Sermoneta gloves. And if you are expecting some sort of chestnut-epiphany, I'm afraid I was rather disappointed with that chestnut, and promptly disregarded whatever culinary merits it offered.
Later, on a different cold winter afternoon, I went to browse New York's Neue Gallerie, and then decided to treat myself to lunch in their cafe. Cafe Sabarsky is probably one of my favorite places for a sophisticated bite, and though I swoon over their Austrian pastries, this particular day I had a bowl of chestnut soup. And here, my friends, is where the chestnut-epihpany happened. Ever since then, I've made all sorts of chestnut soups, stuffings, ragouts, and cakes, determined to make up for lost time. New York Magazine even published the recipe for the cafe's chestnut soup, and I made that too. The soup was good, but it didn't quite capture the magic of that first one I had, and the recipe was terribly complicated- it even calls for making porcini foam.

Each autumn over the past four years I've fiddled and tweaked with that chestnut soup recipe, simplifying and adjusting the components. I think I've finally got it. The result is good enough to cause your own chestnut-epiphany, but it's also easy enough to make and eat during the week. I've made this both roasting the chestnuts myself and buying bottled-peeled chestnuts, and though I do think it is most flavorful with fresh-chestnuts, it's excellent with the prepared kind, and you'll save yourself the pain of peeling them yourself (is there a way to peel chestnuts without loosing a few fingernails?).

To call this simply chestnut soup would be to simplify it's other components- the mushroom broth, the sweet fennel, the hints of wine and nutmeg, so I called it creamy autumn chestnut soup, embodying the warmth of the season. It's just as good in winter, too. And whether you choose this for your Thanksgiving table, or simply for any afternoon, I'm sure you'll be thankful you made it.

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Creamy Autumn Chestnut Soup
This is the soup I look forward to every autumn. If fennel is not to your taste, a thinly sliced celeriac bulb also works nicely. For a fancier presentation, serve garnished with creme fraiche or an Armagnac-soaked prune.

4 cups light vegetable stock or broth
12 oz button mushrooms, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 a fennel bulb, cored and sliced
16 oz shelled roast chestnuts, roughly chopped (bottled or fresh-roasted, see below)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup white wine, preferably Riesling
salt, nutmeg, to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Put the stock and mushrooms in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside and let cool completely. Strain the out mushrooms and discard or set aside for another use.
2. Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the fennel slices and saute for a few minutes, until beginning to soften. Add the chopped chestnuts, sprinkle the sugar over top, increase the heat to high for a couple minutes until the mixture begins to caramelize. Reduce the heat back to medium and deglaze the pan with the white wine. Stir the mixture for one minute, then add the mushroom stock. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer the mixture over low heat for 20 minutes. Stir in the cream and remove the pot from the heat. Let cool slightly.
3. Blend the mixture with a blender until completely smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve. Reheat, season to taste, and serve.

To prepare fresh chestnuts: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. With a sharp paring knife, cut an X into the flat side of each chestnut. Place the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet, and roast in the middle of the oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the shell curls. Remove from oven, and allow to cool. Peel and discard the shells, reserving the chestnuts.


Anonymous said...

I really love all the flavors in this soup - the wine, the fennel, the mushrooms - sounds like such a great recipe!

KMDuff said...

mmmmmmm....yummy looking. I have been looking at an apple chestnut soup recipe to try, and now I'm going to have to debate which to make! (Or make both and compare.)

Callipygia said...

The smell of chestnuts roasting is hard to beat. I'd like to try your soup if I can score some pre-shelled meats (trader joe's used to sell frozen ones).

Anonymous said...

Here it is a year later, and at first google I find your recipe! Thank you! I had the same chestnut soup epiphany at Neue, and I have always detested chestnuts (or so I thought). Two items: (1) what do you think about using fresh-roasted chestnuts from a street vendor? And (2) here is an extraordinary recipe for Sticky Toffee Date Pudding I begged for after tasting it this Thanksgiving (hope the formatting doesn't get too confusing):

STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING (We also call it Sticky Date Pudding).

6oz dates (stoned and chopped)
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 1/3 cups boiling water
4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup castor (superfine) sugar
2 eggs
1 cup (and one tablespoon) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 tsp vanilla

2 1/2 cups lightly packed brown sugar
1 cup heavy cream
18 oz unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean, split

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Butter a cake tin (10 inch diameter)
Mix dates and bicarbonate of soda, pour on boiling water and let stand.
Cream butter and sugar, then add eggs one at a time, beating well after each.
Sift flour and baking powder and fold into mixture gently.
Then stir in date/water mixture and vanilla.
Pour into prepared tin and bake in oven for 30-40 minutes until cooked.

To make the sauce, melt butter gently, stir in brown sugar, cream and vanilla bean.  Bring to the boil and then turn down to simmer for five minutes.  Remove the vanilla bean.  Pour a little sauce over the warm pudding and return it to the oven for a 5 minutes so that the sauce soaks in.