Chestnuts are not just for Christmas, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they exist simply in terms of festive carols, Dickensian greetings cards and corny clichés. Each year — the first time you hear that good old evergreen line about roasting and open fires — it makes you glow with nostalgia and anticipation; by the zillionth time it twangs through a mobbed mall you want to strangle the composer.
Chestnuts deserve their place in the kitchen cabinet throughout the winter months, although British culinary tradition has tended to be limited to chestnut stuffing, chestnuts sautéed with Brussels sprouts and the occasional pudding.
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To give them a more contemporary touch, I like to sauté them with a little unsalted butter and olive oil along with a crushed garlic clove, thyme leaves, sea salt and black pepper. You can also mix them with fresh egg pasta with a touch of cream and parsley; include in a risotto with kale, cavolo nero or other greens; or add to a winter minestrone packed with root vegetables and squash.
And it would be worth updating John Evelyn’s 17th-century recipe for roast chestnuts with orange juice, sugar and claret, which he described as both “delicacies for princes” and “lusty food for rusticks.”
Fresh, sweet chestnuts (not to be confused with those from the horse chestnut tree) have a short shelf life; they are best tackled by carving a split in the base with a small, sharp knife before roasting in the oven, unless you are in the fortunate position of having an open fire where you can dreamily toast them over gentle gray-white embers. Although I must issue a public safety warning: If left too long, the nuts can burst open in a ferocious explosion, scattering hot shrapnel around the room. Though maybe that’s part of the fun.
Roasting nuts in a fire or an oven is labor-intensive and fiddly, and few of us these days have the time or patience needed to crack a nut. Luckily, you can now get precooked, peeled and vacuum-packed or tinned chestnuts either whole, sliced or puréed.
Chestnuts a favorite in traditional desserts
One of the best ice creams in the world, sometimes called Mont Blanc, is made with vanilla ice cream and chestnuts, and another French classic, Turinois, is made with a purée of sweetened chestnuts folded into whipped cream and melted dark chocolate. Once set, it is sliced and served with crème fraiche and small, plain biscuits. Monte Bianco is an equally ravishing Italian dessert of cooked chestnuts shaped into a mountain with avalanches of sugar and whipped cream.
One of the most legendary chestnut desserts is Nesselrode pie, an iced pudding said to have been invented by the chef to the great 19th-century Russian diplomat and bon viveur Count Karl von Nesselrode. It requires delirious mountains of chestnut purée, alpine peaks of whipped cream and liberal amounts of candied fruit and maraschino cherries. I would say it is long overdue for revival if it did not involve, according to food historian Ivan Day, peeling, blanching and poaching fine Italian chestnuts in syrup before rubbing them through a hair sieve then freezing the fruit, nut, sugar, egg yolk and cream mixture in a pig’s bladder. Yes, you read that right.
As much as I love chestnuts, frankly this is a step too far for what is meant, after all, to be a holiday period. I shall leave this to the experts or those with easy access to piggy parts. So, pass me a marron glacé while I recline on the chaise lounge. It’s that time of year.
Chestnut, Sausage and Red Wine Risotto
You can use any meaty sausage, but Sicilian ones spiked with chili and fennel work particularly well. Use kale, cavolo nero, cabbage or, as I have done, sprout tops for the green element.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 30-40 minutes
Total time: 50 to 60 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
6 fat Italian sausages
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 finely chopped onion
2 cups Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1 cup red wine
1/2 cooked chestnuts
2 quarts (about 2 liters) hot chicken stock
2 to 3 cups cooked and shredded greens
1 1/2 tablespoons Parmesan, grated
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Remove the skins from the sausages and crumble into pieces. Heat the olive oil in a pan and fry the meat until golden and crusty. Set aside but reserve the juices.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan or casserole dish then fry the onion until soft, adding the juices from the sausages. Use a wooden fork to stir in the rice until it is coated with the fat.
3. Pour in the wine and allow to evaporate, stirring over medium heat.
4. Add the chestnuts, then gradually add the stock, a little at a time, stirring until absorbed each time. This should take about 15 minutes. Once the stock is absorbed, add the greens.
5. When the rice is cooked to your taste, turn off the heat and add the Parmesan, then the cream. Season with salt and pepper to taste and mix until well blended.