Lentil Soup with Chestnuts and Fennel

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…


Potato, Spring Onion and Turnip Potage
Smoky Tomato Bean Soup with Bacon and Bikkies

One year ago:

Sourdough Deep Dish Pizza
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Coffeecake

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

The lentils:
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

The chestnuts:
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

The garnish:
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.

14 thoughts on “Lentil Soup with Chestnuts and Fennel”

  1. Lentils are awesome.

    I wonder if I could use roasted (leached) acorns in place of the chestnuts? They have a similar flavor in some ways, and are much easier to peel.

    What do you think?

  2. The trick to peeling chestnuts, apparently, is to drop them in nitro glycerin, lol! Then the shells shatter off, leaving a perfectly peeled nut behind. So, yeah, buying them peeled works for me.

  3. This is one of my most favorite fall soups. I have been making it since you published this recipe, and people are always surprised with the chestnuts (which I think are the real stars of the dish!)
    I often add crispy bacon on top as well as a strip to simmer in the pot with the rest of the ingredients for a little extra smoky flavor. Thanks for this wonderful recipe and years of fall comfort food!

  4. I haven't made your soup yet, but I'm going to this weekend – with a jar of French chestnuts because they're out of season :-) – but I just wanted to let you know as a huge lover of fresh roasted chestnuts, if the membrane doesn't come off easily they're too old or too dry. It's nothing you're doing wrong. The membrane of a fresh roasted chestnut should come off immediately, easily, and without pain! And you should be able to peel a good chestnut just as easily when it's cooled down after roasting, though that only happens in my case when I have such a mountain of fresh roasted chestnuts that the last ones I eat are cold. Too old or too dry ones are immensely frustrating (I'm guessing too dry would come from drought or semi drought conditions while they were ripening, but too old is a common problem – they dry out fast once released from their spiky shell protection, and have weeks at best before they're 'gone') and should definitely be left well alone! I always do a 'test buy' of a few before I commit myself to pounds of them when they're in season to check they're fresh and moist inside.

    1. I can't thank you enough for this! I've been wondering about those pesky chestnuts for years. I'm totally trying your small batch testing method next time. Please let me know how you like the soup, and thanks again so much for reading and taking the time to comment. :)

  5. First of all thank you for this recipe! I really enjoyed to cook and eat it.
    Now to the chestnuts: I couldn’t find canned ones in Switzerland so I bought fresh ones and prepared for the worst! Somehow the worse was try to make an X on the bottom of them cutting myself several times since the chestnuts kept slipping through my fingers. I gave up after a while which caused the chestnuts without X to explode in the oven! BUT: to my very pleasant surprise pealing them was really simple! Maybe we have a different type of chestnuts?!

  6. Although I live in the U.S., I’m originally from Germany and grew up with collecting chestnuts in the woods and going home to eat them, in fact it’s to this day a big tradition in my family. We never roast them, as our entire family agrees that they taste better boiled. We’ve never had trouble peeling the chestnuts though, so I though I’d post this, just in case you maybe didn’t boil them long enough? We usually boil them for about 20-30 min, “as long as a big potato”, my dad always says. Then the sticky skin comes right off with the brown peel! I’m so sad it’s so hard to get chestnuts over here and even if you do, it’s painfully expensive, all because of that stupid blight that wiped out the chestnut trees!

  7. I’m making this soup right now… I have both ground fennel seed and whole fennel seeds. Both are labeled as ‘fennel seed.’ I didn’t see anyone in the comments ask, so I didn’t see an answer. What I’m going to do, then, is, in the step where the diced vegetables go into the pan, I’ll use the whole seed. I do love fennel in all forms!

    I see in the chestnut mixture portion of the instructions, you do specify “crushed.” I may assume, of course, that without any qualifier, you did mean whole fennel seeds in the first part. Any time I cook with fennel, I tend to go for the seeds when it calls for sauté or a longer cooking step (such as in this recipe) so in the end, maybe my comment will only help someone else not very familiar with fennel in their cooking. Indeed, both of my jars simply say “Fennel Seed” but one is clearly, to the eye, a powder! :-)

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for the great question! I did use whole seeds in both places (but ground seeds would work fine as wall). Please let me know how you like the soup!

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