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Monday
Oct312005

From Soup to Nuts

chestnutsoup.jpg
Roasted Chestnut and Hazelnut Soup 

 

In 1946, when Nat King Cole crooned "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." he probably didn't realize he was singing the line that would one day put chestnuts on the gastronomic radar for most of the American population. At the time he sang, chestnuts were a ubiquitous part of Christmas tradition across the U.S., both at home and on the street. Christmas stuffings and cakes groaned under the weight of added chestnuts; in the big cities roasters plied the streets like espresso carts do today. What nobody could foresee was that within a few short decades the omnipresent Christmas nut would have disappeared entirely, its presence in songs outlasting its presence on our tables. From a time when you couldn't step sideways in December without bumping into a chestnut, what sent us spiralling downhill to the point where the the average annual consumption for every man, woman and child in America can be measured in a fraction of a nut?

Chestnut trees once grew in abundance in temperate climates all over the world, from East Asia to North America, and were particularly abundant in southern Europe. In France, Spain and Italy the chestnut was vital to human survival for several centuries, as it provided a cheap and plentiful source of calories in the winter when not much else would grow. Because of its starchy composition it was widely used as a replacement for flour, and dried milled chestnuts were put through their paces as the backbone of breads, porridges and pastas. Particularly popular were cakes that capitalized on chestnuts' inherent sweetness; today recipes for these can still be found: castagnaccio in Italy, pisticcine in Corsica and délice à la châtaigne in southwest France are all variations on a dense, moist and subtly-sweet theme.

In North America, there used to be no shortage of chestnuts either. One out of every four trees within the 200 million-acre forest that stretched from Maine to Florida and west to Ohio was a chestnut, and the trees were so visible in the forests that during summer when the tree flowered, many people believed the Appalachians to be snow covered. It's well documented that Native Americans in many areas were eating chestnuts for generations before the arrival of Europeans, and the early settlers found many uses for both the nuts and the wood. Many recipes published around the turn of the 20th Century included chestnuts as an accompaniment to or replacement for more expensive ingredients; tons of nuts were packed and shipped by train to large cities for street vendors to roast during the holidays.

Then in 1904, the chestnut blight struck. In that year a shipment of Asian chestnut trees was planted on Long Island; what nobody knew was that these trees carried a lethal fungus that the American trees had no resistance to. Within the next fifty years nearly all native American chestnut trees were wiped out. Chestnuts went from being a ubiquitous winter crop to being practically non-existent; generations of Americans grew up without ever so much as tasting one.

My first experience with chestnuts came from a street vendor in Spain, where they still grow in abundance. I was mesmerized by how different they were to my expectations - they tasted nothing like a nut, but more like a nugget of some crumbly primeval sweet potato. I later learned that they probably do have more in common nutritionally with a potato than other nuts, and also that different preparation methods affect their character substantially. While roasting concentrates their flavors and produces a drier, chewier specimen, boiling, particularly in milk, causes the kernel to swell slightly and become moist, tender, and almost buttery. Whichever way they're prepared, though, once coerced out of its leathery peel, the chestnut dissolves into your mouth with a sigh of crumbly richness, warm and ancient and comforting - a perfect antidote to winter frosts.

Now that chestnut trees are being slowly reintroduced to North America, it's becoming easier to get ahold of them. These days you can buy American-grown chestnuts at farmer's markets and over the internet, and imported fresh, canned or vacuum-sealed varieties can usually be found in gourmet supermarkets. In whichever form you have them - and after you've roasted yourself a few over an open fire, just for the experience - this soup is a wonderful thing to do with them. The chestnuts' sweet earthiness combines beautifully with roasted hazelnuts and hearty root vegetables into a silky, nutty, slightly sweet bisque, subtly accentuated with a few drops of hazelnut liqueur. It may not make up for all those chestnut-less years you may have suffered, but it will keep you warm and sated through plenty of sidewalk-shoveling, snowman building, and of course, singing along with Nat King Cole.

Internet chestnut purveyors:
http://www.chestnutsonline.com/
http://www.delmarvelouschestnuts.com/
http://www.chestnutsusa.com/

Roasted Chestnut and Hazelnut Soup
Source: adapted from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso
Serves: 6-8
Note: Always puncture the shells of chestnuts before cooking to prevent explosion(!). To do this carve an X into the bottom end of the shell with a paring knife, taking care not to puncture the nut inside. To roast chestnuts over a fire, place the scored nuts in a foil pie tin punched with holes, sprinkle with water, and place directly on hot coals. Shake a few times during the roasting to prevent charring. When a fire is not roaring and ready for nuts, any oven will work. Roast the nuts at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or so, until the scored corners of the skin curl back, and peel while still hot. Alternatively, to boil place the scored nuts in a saucepan and cover with either milk or cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, then peel. 

1/2 lb peeled chestnuts (roasted, boiled or pre-packaged), roughly chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup bacon or pancetta, diced
1 large yellow onion, chopped
5 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups rich chicken stock
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and coarsely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons Frangelico (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste 

Melt the butter in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the bacon or pancetta, onion, celery, carrots, garlic and thyme. Sauté until the vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and stock, and stir in the chopped chestnuts. Heat to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered 45 minutes, or until everything is soft and the flavors have blended.

Remove the soup from the heat and stir in the hazelnuts, cream and Frangelico. Puree the soup in batches in a blender or in the pot with an immersion blender until it's as smooth as you can get it. Pour into a clean pot, taste and adjust seasonings, and rewarm gently. Ladle the soup into small bowls and garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche.

 

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Reader Comments (16)

Hi Melissa, what a fabulous picture and delicious recipe! Do you think a few drops of hazelnut oil would work as an accent at the end?(Fragelico being virtually impossible to find over here...)Was wandering around the local Japanese supermarket today and spotted the most beautiful kuri. Visions of chestnut & bacon soup and mont blanc immediately sprang to mind, but I steeled myself and walked on by...This post has just given me reason to buy a bag the next time I'm there ;)
November 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJ
Hi Melissa, what a heartwarming bowl of soup! It seems like the perfect thing to eat to warm your toes on a cold day. Your picture is gorgeous and I would love to know how you got that dollop of creme fraiche to sit there so patiently on the top of the soup while you took the picture. I've tried to do that before and found it sank right to the bottom of the bowl, and completely out of sight!
November 1, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermichele
Great writing, as usual! I wondered why chestnuts are so expensive now... The Chinese roast them in the oven. How delicious!
November 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJessica "Su Good Eats"
Looks like a wonderful recipe. And I love your background information on the chestnut trees. They are spectacular when they bloom. Question: what does this soup go with? Or is it so hearty, it's pretty much a meal on its own?
November 2, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermari
How very quinessentially fall! Love the write up, as usual - wonderful information, and totally sets the stage (or table, so to speak) for the tasty treat for a finish. And I do think you must have had some particularly well-behaved creme fraiche (as per Michele), all to often I'm fiddling with my camera and must proud little quenelle is suddenly a sad little blob.
November 2, 2005 | Unregistered Commentertara
Hi Melissa, one of the most interesting post I have read for weeks. Very interesting to know about the fate of the chestnut trees in the Applachian Mountains...Background information is something highly valuable and essential when considering how much food blogging means to us, and you are one of those who bring along a lot of information (and I love your poetic style of writing - when reading your posts I can feel how much your language and its use means to you !)
BTW, do you know that your soup recipe is typically piemontese ? They use lots of chestnuts, have large hazelnut plantations (the home country of Nutella !) and I have read similar recipes in their cookbooks since La cucina piemontese is one of my most favourite cuisines. Looking forward to reading more and take care, angelika
November 3, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterangelika
Your writing is ceaselessly beautiful, spellbinding, and (pedestrian though it may be) informative. And those photos? God!

I hate you!

;)
November 4, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine
Hi J - I think the soup would take well to whatever you have on hand. The original actually called for brandy - I added Frangelico because I thought its sweetness would marry well with the chestnuts, but feel free to experiment! Hazelnut oil sounds delicious, perhaps along with a touch of brandy or even something like sherry, vermouth or marsala. Oh, and I bet you could even substitute some kuri squash for the carrots! :)

Hi Michele - What a funny question! I didn't do anything to the creme fraiche, just plonked it on top and snapped away! I suspect two things might help it stay afloat, though: 1) the thickness of the soup (the thicker the better, obviously), and 2) the temperature (I always shoot soup cold, but shhh! don't tell anyone ;)

Hi Jessica - Thank you! I've actually never bought chestnuts in the states, but it doesn't surprise me that they're expensive. Such a pity, they're so good!

Hi Mari - Can you believe I've never seen a chestnut tree in bloom? I have heard that they're beautiful. To answer your question, this is a pretty hearty and rich soup. I think a hunk of really nice bread would be plenty to make a meal out of this, but I suppose a salad wouldn't go wrong either. If you're thinking of serving it with other food, just make sure you give really small portions!

Hi Tara - Thanks :) I think I'm enjoying fall more this year than ever before, and to think I haven't even scratched the surface of all the wonderful foods the season has to offer! As for the creme fraiche, well the cat's out of the bag already on that one... ;)

Hi Angelika - Why thank you! It's nice to know I'm not alone in my hunger for knowledge about things I cook and eat :) I'm really fascinated to learn that this soup has Piemontese origins. Have you tasted something like it there? I thought it might be an invention of the authors of this classic cookbook, but now I'll have to do some searching around and see what other versions I can find. Thanks for the info!

Hi Catherine - I don't even know what to say! Thank you my dear, I am honored to receive such praise from such a wordsmith as yourself. Your comment warmed my heart on this cold Scottish morning... :)
November 4, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Hi Melissa,

The photo makes the soup look simply delicious. I almost feel like plucking the spoon out from my monitor to have a taste of it. It doesn't ever get cold enough for soups here, but I do enjoy them from time to time, especially when it rains. Thank you for sharing this!
November 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterReid
Hi Reid, you're welcome! I do know that in perpetually-hot weather the idea of a hearty soup isn't quite so appetizing, but if you do get any freakishly cold weather this winter I hope you'll give it a try. Or I suppose you could just crank up the A/C to full power and imagine it's snow outside your window instead of sand... ;)
November 6, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Hi Melissa, since you seem to be as much interested in food "roots" as I am I have browsed my cookbooks and have found a recipe in a rather authentic Italian cookbook, under "Piemonte". The recipe for "Minestra di Castagne" calls for:

4 tbsp butter
3 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3 stalks of leek, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 cloves
1500 ml water (or stock I presume)
1000 g chestnuts (maroni)

BTW, in Piemonte they use chestnuts also for risotti.
The idea of adding roasted hazelnuts is rather authentic as well, because they are cultivated there in huge plantations (for Nutella), but have always been a traditional ingredient (for example to be used in Torrone). When you want to take a little time please check my Piemonte photo gallery on my blog. "La cucina piemontese" is very intersted indeed because it has been influenced by so many cultures, even by the Saracens who fell in via Genova. You can still find elements in that cuisine which you usually would consider to be typically from Sicily. Since it is my most appreciated cuisine I will tell some more in my blog - at least from time to time. Take care, angelika
November 7, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterangelika
I just happened to buy a bag of dried chestnuts. Didn't know what I was going to make with them but they looked enticing in the store. Can I use them for this recipes. Of course, now I'll have to look for hazelnuts...

More questions:

What's Frangelico?

And what's "rich" chicken stock? Aren't they all the same. What's the difference?

Thanks,
Paz
November 7, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
Hi Angelika - Thanks very much for posting this recipe - it looks delicious in its simplicity. I don't actually know that much about Piemontese cooking, so I'll definitely have a look through your gallery and await further recipes on your site!

Hi Paz - I imagine you could substitute dried chestnuts in this recipe with no problem, but to be honest I've never used them myself. If they're dried they probably weigh less than cooked ones, so I'd just reduce the quantity a bit. Also: Frangelico is a hazelnut liqueur from Italy - you can often find 'mini' bottles at well-stocked liquor stores if you don't want to buy a whole bottle (then again, it's really good and can be used in a lot of desserts!). Rich chicken stock refers to the taste, i.e. it should be well-flavored. You can use canned broth here, or my personal standby is a paste called 'Better Than Bouillon' which can be mixed with water until the desired 'strength' is achieved. Of course, you can always make your own stock too! :)
November 7, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Thanks, Melissa! As always, I learn a lot of great stuff from you.

Paz
November 8, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
Hi Melissa - this is such a gorgeous looking/sounding soup! I'm definitely going to love this, although I might use a bit less Frangelico... Thank you for the lovely recipe, as always.
November 8, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterkeiko
Hi Melissa, This soup is awesome. I had some packaged pre-cooked chestnuts lying around and this sounded like a good reason to 'get rid' of them. Although the recipe was for 6-8 and we were only two, I didn't want to have an opened packet of chestnuts sitting in the fridge for who knows how long more, so I made the whole recipe and ate soup for 4 days! No regrets though, enjoyed it each time. I didn't have Frangelico and didn't miss it. Thanks for sharing. You have a lovely site! - Fran from Munich
February 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterFran

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