Until recently I was at most mildly unaware of chestnuts. They are that thing people roast in that one Christmas carol, right? And the grocery store sells them in jars and they look like shriveled little brains. Had you asked me about chestnuts two months ago, that would have been the extent of my knowledge.
Then sometime in September my boyfriend and I were walking our pup around the park near our house and we saw this green spiny thing on the ground. I wondered aloud what it was and stepped on it a couple times. Then we walked on. But noticed that as soon as we had walked away from the thing a woman walking slightly behind us quickly snatched it up and carried it covetously – and carefully – away. I was confused and a little intrigued, but I mostly forgot all about it.
Until one day a couple weeks later when we were back at the park and realized that there were people…lots of people…milling around under a few of the trees looking at the ground. And I thought, ‘you know come to think of it those same people have been there the past few times we have come here. Hmm, how odd.’
So when we happened upon one of the spiny pods during that walk, we picked it up and took it home (it almost didn’t make it – we dropped it no less than 10 times – those suckers are really sharp!) We cracked it open at home with some heavy-duty gloves and discovered a chestnut inside. Ah ha.
Coincidentally, the next weekend at the farmers market we saw a booth selling the chestnuts still in their burrs (as I found out the spiny outer layer is called). And they were $10 per pound (!!) So, we got it then. People were swarming to our park, which has about five huge chestnut trees, to collect the chestnuts because they are apparently worth their weight in gold.
Now when we go to the park we keep an eye out for the fallen burrs. Note: we haven’t joined the crazies who from all appearances LIVE at the park and collect the chestnuts from dawn to dusk (ok, if they are feeding their families with the revenue from these chestnuts I will feel bad calling them crazy, but given the fact that the season is two months long each year, I really don’t think that’s the case). We have, however, managed to put away a respectable stash of chestnuts and I have been using them – sparingly! – on and in many fall dishes. They add a great texture and a subtly sweet yet earthy flavor, especially to soups.
Case in point, as part of my reinvigorated obsession with Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan I made a celery root and apple soup recently. It was simple and understated, but just delicious.
I topped it with some of our hard-won chestnuts (lightly toasted) and we ate it for dinner with a simple salad and a hunk of fresh baguette from the farmers market. We felt so French. Not to mention smugly victorious about the chestnuts that we managed to snag from the “professional” gatherers in the park AND that we didn’t have to pay $10 a pound for!
Of course, the chestnuts did not come completely without a price, as anyone who has ever shelled fresh chestnuts knows. They are basically a pain in the butt and if I wasn’t getting them for free I wouldn’t bother.
If you happen upon some though, or want to go ahead and buy some fresh at the store to see what all of the fuss is about, let me give you a piece of advice: boil them instead of roasting them in the oven. They taste the same either way and are a lot easier to peel when they’re boiled. I provide some more detailed instructions for doing this below the soup recipe. Happy chestnut season!
Adapted from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan
Makes 4-6 servings
Dorie calls this recipe ‘Celery-Celery Soup’ because it uses both celery root and celery stalks. For me though, the sweet apple-ness was just as prevalent as the celery, so I am calling my adaptation celery-apple. Note that if you want to follow my lead and top this soup with fresh toasted chestnuts, make sure you boil and peel them before you start working on the soup…as I already lamented, it is a pain and takes a long time. If you want to use jarred chestnuts they would be scrumptious too – just crumble them up and toast them in a pan as the soup simmers.
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 celery stalks with leaves, trimmed and chopped
- 2 med-large onions, chopped
- 2 sweet apples (I used Gala), peeled, cored, and diced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound celery root (2 fist-sized roots), peeled and cut into cubes
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 thyme sprig
- 4 cups veggie broth
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup crème fraîche (optional…but you should really add it ‘cuz it makes things yummier)
- 1/4 cup toasted chestnut pieces (optional)
Melt the butter in a large soup pot over low heat. Then toss in the celery, onions, and apples. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, for 5-7 minutes – until the vegetables are soft.
Add the celery root and stir everything together. Then add the herbs and broth, and bring to a boil.
Once it’s boiling, lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the celery root is soft enough to mash with the back of a spoon. At this point, pull out the bay leaf and the thyme twig (all the leaves will have likely come off).
Puree the soup – either in small batches in a food processor or blender, or all at once with an immersion blender.
Once the soup is smooth, stir in the crème fraîche and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Ladle into bowls, and garnish with another dollop of crème fraîche (if you’re feeling decadent) and toasted chestnuts.
Serve immediately, but also save some for leftovers because this soup is even better the second day!
Adapted from StartCooking.com
Set a large pot of water on the stove to boil.
Wipe the chestnuts off with a damp towel and set them on a cutting board, flat side down.
With a small, sharp knife cut an X in each chestnut. Make your cuts pretty big – this is the section you are going to use to peel away the skin once their cooked. Do not skip this step! The X allows the steam to escape while they are cooking, and if you don’t do it I am told that the chestnuts could explode, which no one wants. Also, please be safe – cushion the chestnut on a clean dish towel if it makes it easier for you to cut.
Boil the chestnuts for 15-20 minutes. Once you take them out, peel as soon as you are able to safely handle them – they are much easier to peel while they are still warm. I actually left half of them in the water until I had peeled the first half so that the second half would still be warm when I got to them.
When peeling, make sure you are removing both layers of skin: there is a thick dark brown outer layer and a thin light brown under layer. As you peel the chestnuts will likely break apart a little, so make sure to have a bowl nearby to save the precious bits of peeled chestnuts.
Save in a container and keep in the refrigerator until you are ready to use.