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.