Chestnuts are another food that has deep childhood associations. My family lived on a dairy farm in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, but we were odd dairy farmers. My father had grown up in Europe, going to a series of Swiss boarding schools, before his mother brought him back to the US where he went to high school at Pomphret, a boarding school dedicated to the education of the sons of the lesser known Boston elite. Then he went to Harvard, and contrived to get thrown out in his senior year for not doing any work in a history seminar. You have to admit, it's a strange background for a dairy farmer.
My mother went to one of the upper class New York day schools, and then to boarding school at Foxcroft, in Middleburg, Va. , where, along with getting a pretty decent education (my mother never failed to blow me away by the depth of her knowledge) she fox hunted on a horse named Nonchelant which belonged to her aunt. Again, a pretty weird background for the wife of a dairy farmer.
World War II had something to do with my father's lifestyle choice, and my mother came along for the ride. So it was that on vacations, we would end up staying with our New York cousins, not exactly country mice, but nonetheless, dazzled by the big city. I have a vivid memory of being somewhere on the West Side, maybe near Lincoln Center, where we used to go to see the Nutcracker, and buying chestnuts from a vendor for the first time. The vendor had a charcoal brazier on a cart. with chestnuts spread across a piece of sheet metal. If people were buying, the chestnuts had time to cook but not burn. They were handed over in a small paper bag which kept our hands warm while we ate the chestnuts. The nuts themselves were creamy, warm and comforting, something like a miniature baked potato.
When I got back to New York as a graduate student, I barely had time to hang out in any of the places that would attract chestnut vendors. When I did run across them, their chestnuts were disappointingly charred. It was like eating a baked potato that had frizzled in a campfire.
But I have always had a soft spot for chestnuts. One November, my husband and I went to Paris, and frequented a bunch of little neighborhood bistros. In one, I ordered a soup whose name I did not recognize, but didn't have the nerve to ask the waiter about. When the soup came, I did ask. It turned out to be chestnut soup. It was delicious.
At Christmas, I looked for some sort of cream soup to start Christmas dinner. All the soup recipes in the NYTH cookbook had either been served or contained the dreaded shellfish. On the Food Republic website, I ran across this recipe and thought "yes" "aha." It was French, it was chestnuts, and hey, the recipe said only 20 minutes prep time. So I bought some chestnuts, which were surprisingly available in DC, ( I think I bought my chestnuts at Whole Foods, but it might have been Magruders.)
Actually I bought quite a few chestnuts. The recipe said 2 1/2 pounds to make soup for four people. We were expecting eight people, so I bought five pounds. On the night of the 23rd, I sat down to start peeling the chestnuts. It was an excruciating task. I had to pierce the annoyingly tough and slippery skin, and then pry the meat out. It wasn't easy and resulted in many nicks and cuts to my hands. After an hour and a half, I had peeled maybe half the chestnuts. As I slumped over my measly collection of peeled chestnuts, Laura blew in. She is a friend of my daughter's now living in our basement, and sort of ministers to us old people , as well as working 55 to 60 hours a week. Laura made me a fresh cup of tea, and looked at what I was doing. "Boil them first," she advised, as she disappeared out the door with the puppy.
So the next day, I threw the rest of the chestnuts into a stewpot and boiled them for an hour. This resulted in rendering the tough, slippery skin somewhat more flexible, so it was actually possible to peel the shell off the nuts, instead of having to pry them off. It did not mean the operation went a lot faster, however. After another hour and a half, I had peeled the last of the chestnuts into the big china bowl and was ready to totter off to bed.
It was clear to me that Alain Ducasse, although he was a world famous chef, or because he was a world famous chef, had not factored peeling the chestnuts into the prep time. He was too busy creating a world image and opening restaurants around the globe, after all.
As far as the cooking went, our friend Tim stepped in and did most of that. I do know that everything had to cook for far longer than 45 minutes. One little throw away line startled me. I could see from the photo, the soup had been run through a blender. However, blenders were not mentioned. It did say, at the beginning to step 7, "Blend the soup thoroughly." It didn't mean mix it up. It meant, run it through the Cuisineart.
According to my husband, the soup was not all that great. Our guests had a wonderful time however. Nothing damped the Christmas spirit.
My advice is to use frozen chestnuts if you can get them, and to be prepared to doctor the soup with herbs and spices.
3 stalks celery
3 cloves garlic
2 slices bacon
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon peppercorns
2 quarts chicken stock
12 ounces porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper, ground
2 1/2 pounds chestnuts, peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
2. Peel and cut the shallots and celery into large chunks. Peel the three garlic cloves.
3. Heat a flameproof casserole dish and put in two slices of bacon, 1/8 inch thick. Color well (this means brown deeply) on both sides and then take the slices out and keep them warm.
4. Add the chunks of shallot and celery and the whole garlic cloves to the bacon fast. Stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add 2 1/2 pounds of peeled chestnuts to the casserole dish. Sweat for three minutes, stirring. (this means saute for three minutes.)
5. Take out about 20 chestnuts and set aside. Then add a bay leaf and the peppercorns. Add the chicken stock and put the casserole dish in the oven for 45 minutes. (I would turn the heat up to at least 300 degrees, 350 if you have to, or allot 90 minutes for the chestnuts to cook.)
6. In the meantime, clean the mushrooms. Slice the caps of 2 firm mushrooms into thin slices and keep cold on a plate covered with plastic wrap. Chop the rest into small dice.
7. Once the chestnuts are soft, run the contents of the casserole dish through a blender or Cuisineart. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt and freshly ground black pepper. Keep hot. Cut the two slices of bacon into fine lardons and cut the 20 reserved chestnuts into quarters.
8. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan and brown the chestnuts for two minutes. Add the diced mushrooms, salt lightly and cook for an additional two minutes.
9. Add the small lardons, stir and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with mushroom slices and serve nice and hot.