Chestnuts

Chestnut vendor When we were on holiday in Madrid a few years back I remember buying the most amazing roasted chestnuts (pictured right) – freshly roasted in vast cauldrons – from the many street vendors around the city.

They were dished out to us piping hot in small paper bags – often selling for as little as 1 Euro per 100g (a large handful).

Here in the UK, since the chestnut season is so brief (September to December) I think it’s always useful to take advantage whilst we can.

Types / availability

· Whole peeled chestnuts, canned or vacuum-packed, are available from most UK supermarkets. 450g fresh chestnuts (weighed in their shells) are equivalent to 175g dried, reconstituted chestnuts or 350g tinned or vacuum packed nuts.

· Canned chestnut purée, plain or sweetened, available in tins, is a godsend as it saves hours of preparation for use in pudding recipes.

· Chestnut flour (gluten-free and with a slight earthy smokiness) is often available from speciality food stores and delicatessens. This is useful as a substitute for flour in cakes (see below), pancakes or as a thickener for soups and stews.

Chestnuts roastedCooking with fresh chestnuts

Fresh chestnuts should be cooked and never eaten raw – due to their high acid content. I find the oven to be the most effective way of roasting them.

First, pre-heat the oven to 200 C / 390 F.

If you are using fresh chestnuts which contain the outer shell / husk then one of the most important steps before roasting is to cut an incision in the shell using the end of a sharp knife.

Alternatively you can roll your foot over them until they crack slightly. This prevents sudden explosions of chestnut shrapnel from inside the oven due to a pressure build up in the shell.

Next, place approximately 200g chestnuts on an oven tray and roast for 20-25 minutes.

Once cooked, peel off the tough shell and the papery thin skin underneath. Peel the nuts whilst hot – it’s impossible to peel a cold chestnut – to ensure the complete removal of the inner brown furry skin, called the ‘tan’, which is bitter.

Alternative recipes

A great cake recipe of Italian origin is Montebianco – using chestnuts, chocolate and coffee, with layers of mousse, praline and almond meringue. Who could say no to that?Chestnuts aerial view

If you prefer something a bit more homely then I cannot think of anything more inviting than steaming ladlefuls of hot chestnut soup.

First, take 1kg fresh, cooked and peeled chestnuts (or 600g pre-packaged and vacuum-packed), 1 onion, 1 garlic clove (finely chopped), 25g butter, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 litre stock and 1 tbsp brown sugar.

Next, In a saucepan, heat a the butter with the olive oil over a medium heat, then add the garlic and onions. Cook them for about 5 minutes or until they become soft and begin to brown.

Add the stock, brown sugar and bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and blitz with a hand blender until smooth, then adjust the seasoning to taste.

The soup is naturally creamy so there is no need to add cream.

Serve into soup bowls and enjoy.

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