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Chestnuts make most of us think of street vendors hawking the hot, blackened nuggets during the holidays. Or Nat King Cole (more recently, Justin Bieber) singing, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at some rum." Okay, the lyrics didn't go quite that way. The point is, there is much more to chestnuts than our associations suggest.
Maybe you've had chestnuts as an upscale ingredient in stuffing. Lately they've been appearing on my radar in updated and unusual ways.
Last fall, Mario Batali, on his popular daytime cooking show, The Chew, made an interesting Italian Ciambella bundt cake out of chestnut flour, currants, grappa and mascarpone cheese.
My December copy of Bon Appetit arrived with not one, but two chestnut recipes. The first, roasting the peeled, brain-shaped beauties in butter, seemed pretty standard until rosemary and nutmeg were added. The other, pairing them with roasted turnips and carrots, turned noteworthy with the addition of a ginger glaze.
More recently a new gluten-free cookbook, Small Plates & Sweet Treats, by Aran Goyoago, landed on my desk. In it I found a recipe for chestnut-flour crepes filled with creamy mushrooms.
Then, a couple weeks ago, one of the three finalists on the popular Bravo series Top Chef made a smooth chestnut soup,
That settled it: A trend was afoot.
I called Dominique Filoni, executive chef of Avenue, the terrific Mediterranean restaurant on the boardwalk in Long Branch. Turns out Filoni, 43, has a chestnut veloute on the menu. It's a rich, silky soup made with bacon, chestnuts, onions and leeks cooked in duck fat and pureed in a blender along with milk and cognac.
The recipe calls for a surprising garnish: a dusting of finely grated bittersweet chocolate. "The chocolate balances the smokiness of the soup," Filoni explained.
Growing up in the south of France, Filoni watched his grandmother use chestnuts and chestnut flour in many recipes, including a rustic Easter cake.
“Chestnut flour was actually cheaper” than wheat flour, he said. Montclair author Laura Schenone made a similar point about smoked chestnuts and chestnut flour in poor, mountainous northern Italy in her excellent book The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken.
In Filoni's soup, the natural starchiness of the pureed chestnuts thickens the soup and gives it a velvety texture.
In the 19th Century, chestnuts were common in American cooking. Across the continent, but especially in the Northeast, billions of trees yielded tons and tons of nuts. Growing for centuries and reaching heights up to 100 feet, chestnut trees were prized not only for their fruit, but as lumber.
Then In 1904, a fungal blight--most likely introduced accidentally by some Japanese nursery stock--struck the abundant population. Within 40 years, chestnuts were virtually wiped off the map--and consequently off many menus too.
Despite recent efforts to revive the American chestnut as a cooking ingredient, most come from areas around the Mediterranean that were not affected by the horticultural disease. Filoni’s chestnuts are imported from Europe and arrive pre-cooked with the thin shell and skin removed.
If you are would like to introduce chestnut recipes into your repertoire, Cranford based nuts.com sells fresh and dried chestnuts, as well as chestnut flour (which happens to be gluten-free). For inspiration, Chestnut Grower’s, Inc. has recipes from appetizers to desserts.
“I wish more people would discover and use them,” says Filoni, “They are so good, healthy and nutritious. Let’s spread the word.”
Adapted from Dominique Filoni, Avenue Restaurant
Serving Size: 6
2 ounces duck fat
4.5 oz onions, chopped
4oz white leek, chopped.
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed.
2 strips smoked bacon, chopped.
2 strips bacon, cooked until very crisp
1 sprig fresh thyme.
1 fresh bay leaf
2 pounds peeled fresh or frozen chestnut
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon Cognac
5 cups chicken stock
1 cup milk
4 ounces butter.
chunk of bittersweet chocolate for grating
1. In a medium sauce pan, heat the duck fat until hot. Add all the vegetables and the smoked bacon and cook, covered, until all the vegetables are translucent. Add the herbs and chestnuts and cook for about 4 minutes.
2. Pour in the vinegar and cook until evaporated. Repeat with the cognac. Add the stock and the milk. Bring to a boil and cook for 45 minutes on a slow simmer.
3. In a high speed blender, puree the soup. Strain through a fine sieve.
4. Reheat and whisk in the butter a little at a time. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5. Garnish with grated bittersweet chocolate and a piece of extra crisp bacon.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.