I seem to have a penchant for tedium, insofar as food is involved. Pitting cherries, blanching almonds, shelling fava beans; if it’s edible and time-consuming, I probably love doing it. Which is why I didn’t blench when Rachel, chef/owner of the late, great Petite Patisserie, arrived with 5 pounds of fresh chestnuts one day. We used 100% organic ingredients at PP, which sometimes meant jumping through culinary hoops to get the right products, like tinkering with recipes that called for dutch-processed cocoa powder, or blanching pounds and pounds of organic almonds to grind into our pate sucree. Or in this case, roasting, peeling and pureeing fresh chestnuts to bake into chocolate ‘sylvie’ cakes.
Side by side, we cut X’s in the bottoms of the chestnuts with the minimum of finger-chopping, then arranged the nuts on sheet pans and roasted them in the oven. Ignoring the burning sensation, we grasped the hot nuts in our hands and began peeling.
And that’s when my love of tedium turned into a burning rage at inefficiency.
While the hard, chocolate-brown shells came off easily, a thin, fuzzy membrane was left, clinging stubbornly, to the sweet flesh. Trying to peel off the membrane resulted in the nut crumbling into a powdery mess of chestnut dust and membrane. A taste of the tannic, bitter membrane revealed that it absolutely had to go before the nuts could be pureed to a paste and baked into little chocolate cakes.
Undaunted, Rachel next tried blanching the nuts in boiling water. The steam scorched our fingertips as we tried in vain to peel the stubborn things. The membrane still clung obstinately.
I spent my entire shift peeling chestnuts, then cleaned up, went home, and came back the next day to… peel more chestnuts. Never in my life had I felt such hatred toward an inanimate, edible object, and I swore never again to grapple with fresh chestnuts.
I spent the next four falls gazing longingly at the fresh chestnuts that would pop up at Rainbow, resignedly purchasing canned, conventional chestnuts whenever I got a hankering.
But the other day I came across Deborah Madison’s Lentil Soup with Chestnuts and Fennel. Her directions for blanching chestnuts sounded seductively simple, so I wrote down the amounts of both canned and fresh on my shopping list. At Rainbow I wavered, sticking my hand into the bin of smooth, cool nuts like Amelie likes to do with beans, and, with a bad feeling about the whole business, weighed out 1 1/2 pounds, trying not to flinch at the exorbitant price.
‘Maybe we just didn’t cook them long enough,’ I thought, optimistically.
When I got home, I googled ‘how to peel chestnuts’ and came up with a dozen different sworn-by methods. One site even had a video of a woman blithely slipping the skins off halved nuts with a pair of pliers. What could be easier?
I don’t know what kind of tricksy stunt-chestnuts that woman was using, because my chestnut-peeling experience today was no less traumatic than I remembered it being four years ago. After about three hours, I had:
1) a measly bowl-full of chestnut dust
2) a hungry boyfriend pestering me about when dinner would be ready
3) no fingerprints left on either of my thumbs
If you’ve ever tried to peel a too-fresh hard-boiled egg, you know a little what peeling chestnuts is like. Now imagine that the egg is the size of a gumball, you can only handle it when it is finger-burningly hot, and you have to peel 100 of them, and you more or less know how I spent my day.
I don’t know whether I undercooked the nuts, overcooked the nuts, cut the slits too shallow or too deep, had chestnuts that were too old or too fresh. Frankly, I am beyond caring. In the midst of peeling, I turned the knife on myself and was halted only by Jay advising me to use a sharper knife as it would ‘be quicker’. Thanks, Jay.
I have thus come to the conclusion that one should peel one’s own chestnuts if one has:
a) magical chestnut-peeling powers
b) masochistic personality disorder
c) a troupe of dextrous, trained monkeys
Thankfully for all involved, the rest of the soup is infinitely less frustrating to make. A mirepoix of fennel, celery, carrot and onion gets sauteed in olive oil with some herbs. Soaked lentils and water are added and simmered until tender. The chopped chestnuts get a brief saute in more olive oil, and tomato paste and white wine make a tasty reduction. Add the chestnuts to the lentils, and voilà: a delectable, nourishing soup for fall. A few crispy croutons and a grating of parmesan finish it off nicely.
If you’re tired of boring old lentil soup, the beguiling flavors of this one will perk things right up. Hearty, healthy, and satisfying, this makes a superb lunch or dinner on a chilly fall day. And it keeps for many days in the fridge, becoming more and more tasty.
If you decide to make this soup, do yourself a favor: pick up a can of chestnuts, if you can find them.
If not, there are always the trained monkeys…
Lentil Soup with Chestnuts and Fennel
Adapted (barely) from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Soups
For anyone who enjoys making soup, this book is a must-have, not only for its gorgeous photos and brilliant recipes, but also for Ms. Madison’s soothing tone and beautifully written prose. As per her suggestion, I like using the pretty, mottled-green ‘lentils de puy’ for this soup, which hold their shape better than the brown ones. Those work fine, though. If using fresh chestnuts, cook and peel them first, then get on with the lentils. If using jarred or canned ones, cook the lentils first.
Makes 6 – 8 servings
1 cup lentils (preferably soaked for 1 – 2 hours)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1 small fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, the rest finely diced
2 medium carrots, diced (1/2 cup)
2 celery stalks, diced (1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
pinch fennel seed
1 teaspoon salt
one 10-ounce can chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped, or 1 pound fresh chestnuts (warning! see above post)
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 – 2 slices of sourdough or levain bread, cut into small cubes
sunflower or olive oil, for frying the croutons
minced parsley or celery leaves
If possible, place the lentils in a large bowl and cover with water. Let soak 1 – 2 hours. Otherwise, cover the lentils with hot water while you prepare the other ingredients.
In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, celery, celery leaves, garlic, bay, thyme, oregano and fennel seed. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 – 10 minutes. Drain the lentils and add them to the pot along with 1 quart of water (if the lentils were soaked) or 6 cups of water (if they weren’t) and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, 20 – 40 minutes (depending on whether the lentils were soaked). Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs, and taste for salt.
While the lentils are cooking, get on with the chestnuts. If fresh (are you crazy? Didn’t you read my post?!), score an X in the flat side of the chestnuts. Place the chestnuts in a casserole with 1/4 cup water. Cover and roast in a 400º oven for 30 – 60 minutes, until the shells begin peeling themselves away. Keeping the pan covered, work with chestnuts that are as hot as you can stand, and peel away both the shell and the membrane. If you have a lot of chestnut dust, you can shake the nuts in a colander to remove it. Chop the chestnuts into small chunks.
Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add the chopped chestnuts, fennel seed, thyme leaves and a few pinches of salt. Saute over medium-low heat for a few minutes, then add the tomato paste, mashing it smooth, and stir in the wine. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring a few times, until the liquid is thick and reduced.
When the lentils are cooked, add the chestnut mixture to the pot. Simmer a few minutes to meld things together, then taste for seasoning.
In another skillet, warm a tablespoon or two of oil over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and cook, tossing occasionally with a metal spatula, until crisp and browned on all sides. Add a few pinches of salt to taste.
Serve the soup with a handful of croutons, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of parmesan and minced parsley.
The soup keeps well in the fridge for up to a week. Thin with a bit of water if necessary, as the lentils will continue to drink up the broth.