A rich chestnut puree, fragrant with bay leaf and fennel seed, is a wonderful alternative to mashed potatoes in the traditional Thanksgiving feast. But roasting enough chestnuts to make a puree for ten or twelve is laborious work. Instead I often use bottled vacuum-packed chestnuts (available in gourmet shops and many supermarkets), or frozen peeled chestnuts, both of which are excellent for cooking (very different from mushy canned chestnuts in water). When I find great chestnuts at the market, I oven-roast them to serve as-is, right out of the pan, for a surprising hors d’oeuvre. Years ago I figured out a way to make peeling easy: score the chestnut shell and soak them in water before roasting. Though not essential, chestnut knife helps in scoring quickly and accurately (no cut fingers).
Recipe: Roasted Chestnuts for Cooking or Eating
This method for roasting chestnuts makes the flesh sweet and tender and the nuts easy to peel. I score the chestnut peel first and soak them in water. The residual water left in the drained chestnuts creates steam in the hot pan, keeping them from drying out and making them easy to peel.
Yields 1 pound peeled chestnuts
1 1/2 pounds fresh chestnuts
With a sharp knife, make 2 criss-crossing gashes on the flat side of each chestnut. Place the chestnuts in a large bowl and cover with water by 1-inch. Let soak at least 1/2 hour and up to 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 400′.
Drain the nuts and arrange them in a roasting pan. Roast uncovered about 15 to 20 minutes until the shells are brittle and have curled back somewhat. Remove and let cool slightly. When the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off both the hard outer shell and the inner brown skin.
Recipe: Chestnut Puree with Fennel Seed and Bay Leaf
Makes 2 1/2 cups, 4 servings
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large shallots, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1 pound peeled chestnuts, vacuum-packed, frozen or fresh (see below)
1/2 ounce chunk dry cured ham or prosciutto (optional)
1 small bay leaf
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon heavy cream or creme fraiche, or butter, or to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan over low heat combine the olive oil and the shallots. Cover and cook until they have begun to sweat, about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook slowly until the shallots are golden, 5 minutes longer. Stir in the fennel seed and cook 1 minute longer. Add the chestnuts, ham, bay leaf and chicken broth. Cover and simmer until the chestnuts are falling apart, 30 to 45 minutes. Discard the ham and bay leaf.
Process the mixture in a food processor until perfectly smooth, at least 1 1/2 minutes. Stir in heavy cream if desired. Season with salt and fresh pepper to taste.
*Photo courtesy of MarS on Flickr via A Creative Commons License