If you grew up in Southern California like I did, chestnuts were something rarely pondered (except in Christmas songs) and even more rarely eaten. For those of you lucky enough to grow up in New York or Paris however, you probably cut your teeth on freshly roasted chestnuts.
I still vividly recall the first chestnuts I bought on a street corner in Paris years ago. We could smell the cart, with its make-shift, fire fueled roaster, billowing smoke into the frigid December air from blocks away. As we approached, there was a small crowd gathered around, patiently waiting as the vendor meticulously picked out the sweet, bursting nuts, one by one, and heaped them into small origami newspaper cones. When we were finally handed our cone, we scurried off like hungry rodents, guarding our stash until we were in the clear, before tearing into it. I can still conjure up their sweet, smoky flavor.
I also vividly recall my first attempt at cooking with chestnuts, although a bit less fondly. It was when I was the chef at a (now defunct) neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco. We used to do a busy New Year's Eve service and each year that was my opportunity to really break away from our standards and have some fun. Since we were an Italian restaurant, I decided one year to offer a chestnut soup as one of the menu choices. It wasn't until I was elbow deep in the shell shards from 20 pounds of chestnuts that I began cursing myself for not just making lentil soup as I had originally intended. Had I known how labor intensive chestnuts were, I certainly would have opted for something more manageable. That said, the chestnuts were fantastic and the smoky essence they took on from being roasted in our wood oven made the soup a delight to behold. The customers who ordered it that night couldn't have been happier. It wasn't until shortly after that New Year's Eve that I discovered how easy it is to purchase gorgeous chestnuts that have already been peeled for you. Still, I don't think I'd have the appreciation I do if I hadn't been forced to clean so many nuts on my own that day and I'm sure that soup would not have tasted as good. If you're interested in trying your own hand at a chestnut soup, here's a recent recipe from the New York Times.
The one chestnut recipe that stands above all others for me, however, is the Creamy Chestnut Risotto from the Olive's cookbook by Todd English. In this recipe the chestnuts are first simmered with onions and thyme in chicken stock, cream and a touch of maple syrup until they are tender. They are then blended into a luscious puree that is ultimately folded into a simple, basic risotto. The combination on it's own is rich and decadent and when the garnishes are added the dish is lifted into to a whole new dimension. English garnishes the dish with orange segments, scallions, chestnut slices, parsley and Parmesan cheese. The acid from the oranges, sharpness of the cheese, bright elements of the parsley and slightly pungent green onions all help to balance out what might otherwise be a one dimensional, cloying dish. When I make it I like to take it just a few steps further by adding a pinch of chili flakes, some freshly chopped thyme and a smattering of crispy bacon nuggets.