Monthly Archives: December 2009

A New Year approaches

Wednesday 30th.

Puddings for tomorrow are well underway. I’ve poached the pears in red wine, as you can see they are cooling by the kitchen door; the chestnuts are roasted and peeled in preparation for a chocolate and chestnut cake; four clementines are bobbing and simmering away at this very moment for yet another clementine and almond cake; a vast bowl of more clementines and a slightly smaller dish of walnuts and dates are perched on the makeshift shelf. The kitchen smells wonderful and I’m feeling so uncharacteristically organised that I might just have to have a large gin and tonic to celebrate.

Tomorrow night we will be 14 I think, in our very very small flat. I’ve bought a vast piece of pork which will spend a large chunk of tomorrow in the oven, we have nice salami and tuscan bread to start and then I’ll make mashed potato and braised red cabbage to go beside the slow roasted pork. I will resist the urge to panic cook anything else, simple is best, I know that (and often forget that), nothing new, nothing fancy or fussy, I want to enjoy the evening too. Oh, wait, there is one more thing, I’ll cook some lentils to eat after midnight. Its traditional to eat lentils at New Year in Italy, they’re a symbol of good luck and prosperity, their round shape, like tiny coins, is supposed to ensure riches and prosperity for the coming year.

I should go and make the cakes really, then get started on the red cabbage which is better after a night’s rest.

So, Happy New Year to you all. Thank you for reading, thank you for all the companionship that exists on these pages. Heres to health and happiness and good food thoughtfully made for everyone. I hope to break real bread with some of you this coming year.

Rachel

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In praise of Spinach

I am immensely fond of spinach, fresh, lively, gloriously bright green spinach, the kind that bounces, crunches and squeaks in a most unruly way as you try to stuff it into your shopping bag.

Most of the time I like spinach served simply, so as to appreciate its sweet, leafy, ever so slightly bitter goodness, a nod to Popeye. We often have a little pile of spinach for lunch after the pasta, steamed or blanched briefly in fiercely boiling water, drained and then dressed with coarse salt, olive oil and lemon. I like it sautéed in nut-brown butter then seasoned with salt, pepper and a flick of nutmeg. I almost can’t contain my excitement at the thought of a certain French recipe in which spinach is cooked and reheated over 5 days, each day more butter is added, so by the end, half a kilo of spinach has absorbed an impressive 300g of butter and you have a purèe so rich, delicious and full of flavour you need only a very small spoonful beside your grilled lamb chop. I like spinach in soups, salads and soufflès – what am I talking about ? I don’t think I’ve ever had a spinach soufflè, but I would very much like to - dumplings, gnocchi, as filling for ravioli, filo pastry pies, curries, stir frys and tarts. I like a little pile of buttery, glossy spinach under a poached egg and a quivering blob of Hollandaise.

Last but not least, I like Creamed spinach; wilted, drained spinach, mixed with a little carefully made bechamel which has been spiked with musky nutmeg and tangy, sweet- salty parmesan, topped with more parmesan and flashed under the grill.

Creamed spinach

Creamed spinach has been on my mind and in my note-book for few months now, ever since Friday 2nd October to be precise, when my Dad took all of us for dinner at Rowley Leigh’s wonderful restaurant Le Café Anglais in London, the evening before my brother Benjamin married Kate. It was a night of happy company and gloriously good and memorable food. Everything was delicious, but two things really stood out; firstly, a little ramekin of parmesan custard served with anchovy toasts; secondly, a shallow dish of seductive creamed spinach. As I placed spoonful after spoonful beside my fine roast beef, I found myself wondering if creamed spinach is one of the best vegetable dishes ever invented, ambrosial, warm, soft and deeply comforting, food which manages to be both humble and elegant at the same time.

As the black cab raced us past the Georgian stucco terraces and garden squares of Bayswater, home to my sister’s flat in Shepherd’s Bush, I wrote in my notebook – scribbled incoherently actually, the cab driver took some impressive corners -  make creamed spinach ! and underlined it.

Creamed spinach is a good companion for roasted or grilled meat, especially  lamb. It’s nice with grilled fish or beside a big blob of mashed potato topped with a poached or fried egg.  I like it best just so, with some good bread.

I wouldn’t bother making creamed spinach if I didn’t have some really nice, fresh spinach from a proper market, frozen spinach is too sloppy and I don’t bother with plastic bags of ready washed very neat and suffocated spinach from the supermarket, however organic it claims to be, haven’t you noticed the slightly funny smell that accompanies the opening of each bag regardless of the date. Hunt down some good fresh, loose spinach, you won’t regret it, oh and remember Jane Grigsons advice when you choose  ‘assess its liveliness, spinach should have a bouncing, bright appearance. As you stuff it in your bag. it should crunch and squeak

Creamed spinach

Serves 2 (very well) for lunch or 4 – 6 as vegetable side dish or course.

  • 1 kg/2 llb bright green, bouncing very fresh spinach- not baby spinach.
  • 30g butter
  • 30g plain flour
  • 300ml whole milk
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 heaped tablespoons freshly grated parmesan for bechamel
  • 2 heaped tablespoons freshly grated parmesan for sprinkling on top

First cook the spinach

Pick over the spinach and discard any withered, discoloured leaves or very tough stalks. Wash the spinach in several changes of water. Stuff the spinach in a large pan with no more water than clings to its leaves, cover with a lid and put the pan on a medium flame. After about five minutes, give the whole thing a stir and a shake, the spinach will have started to wilt and release lots of green liquid. Raise the heat a little so the spinach cooks more rapidly for another minute or so and the spinach has wilted to about 1/10 of its orignal volume. Turn the spinach into a colander and soon as it is cool enough to handle, squeeze gently to get rid of most of the moisture. Chop the spinach very coarsely and then set it aside while you…

Make your bechamel.

Warm the milk in a small pan but don’t let it boil. In another pan melt the butter over a low flame and add the flour, cook, stirring with a wooden spoon for a couple of minutes but do not let it colour. Remove both pans from the heat and slowly pour the milk into the butter and flour pan a little at a time, whisking (a metal balloon whisk does this job beautifully) well between each addition. Place the sauce back on the heat and keep stirring without interruption until the sauce is dense like thick cream which should take about 8 minutes. Add the parmesan, taste, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg, taste again.

Add the chopped spinach to the bechamel and mix gently and throughly, taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Turn the mixture  -while it is still warm – into a shallow, buttered oven proof dish , I use an 7″ earthenware dish, sprinkle with parmesan and put under a hot grill for a minute or two and the parmesan is melted and golden.

Serve immediately.

Notes

Spinach, described as the ‘Prince of vegetables’ by  the 12th century Arab writer Ibn al-Awan, originated in Persia and was domesticated by the Persians in the 4th century AD maybe earlier. Over time it crept eastwards, first to China via Nepal in the 7th century then in the 11th century it was brought westwards to Europe by the Arabs when they invaded Spain.It only became established and accepted as a food plant in Europe in the middle of the 16th century.

It is generally agreed that eating spinach makes you strong like Popeye.

Last thing

I really hope you had a happy and merry christmas.

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Make one’s clementine cake

and eat it.

Oh dear, Christmas, I’m like a pendulum, one minute I’m all festive, twinkly lights, Stilton and hot chestnuts and the next I’m a bit bah humbug, mildly annoyed and wonky. It’s alright though, I’m used to it, it’s an annual thing and I try not to inflict either state on anyone in the other state if you get my meaning.  I deal with my seasonal schizophrenia by endeavouring to keep things – the festivities, food, drink, presents, decorations, socializing – quite simple, as my wise dad would say, it’s about keeping expectations flexible. If I set out simply, when Christmas explodes, which it usually does, like one of those table poppers, into something surprising and wonderful or something difficult, I manage slightly better.

Slightly.

So this morning with simple in mind I managed stop myself panic cooking the English christmas cake I’ve been promising myself and then berating myself for not making for the whole of December. It wasn’t easy, I had my coat on and I was writing a ridiculous list for a cake that should have been made in November (and then given weekly injections of brandy) whilst chastising myself for not being the magazine spread-christmas-perfect-gift-wrapped kind-of-person I claim to loathe. I took my coat off, screwed up the list and decided this year we can manage without both English Christmas cake and guilt and that being in Rome we should do as the Romans do and buy a very large panettone.

I still had cake on my mind though and a very large bowlful of clementines….

I love this cake, I’ve posted about it before, it’s Nigella Lawson’s recipe from her book ‘How to Eat’ which is in turn inspired by Claudia Roden’s Sephardic orange and almond cake from her wonderful book ‘Middle Eastern Food’. It’s simple -  just clementines, ground almonds, caster sugar, eggs and a teaspoon of baking powder – and beautiful, flecked with orange, dense with almonds, it’s moist and aromatic, half pudding, half cake. I’m partial to a slice when it’s freshly baked, just warm, but maybe it’s even nicer if you wrap it in foil and keep it for a day or two, its flavours intensify and it becomes even more deliciously moist and fragrant. I suggest you make two so you can confirm this theory.

It’s simple to make, you need a bit of patience while the clementines simmer away for a couple of hours, but you’re rewarded for it by the most delightful, sweet scent pervading your kitchen. Once the clementines are soft, you half them, de-seed them and blend everything, skin, pith, fruit into a thick orange pulp which you then mix with 6 eggs, ground almonds, sugar and a generous teaspoon of baking powder. An hour on the oven, lovely baking smells and all that.

I like this cake as pudding with a big blob of creme fraiche or even better Barbados cream; a mixture of heavy cream, greek yogurt and dark, soft muscavado sugar and beside it a glass of dessert wine.

Clementine Cake

From Nigella Lawson’s ‘How to Eat’

  • 4 – 5 clementines (about 375g total weight)
  • 6 eggs
  • 225g golden caster sugar
  • 250g ground almonds
  • 1 generous teaspoon of baking powder.

Put the clementines in a pan and cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then reduce the heat to a lively simmer. Leave the clementines bobbing away for 2 hours.

Drain and cool the clementines. Once cool enough to handle, cut the clementines in half and remove the pips and then mash everything, skin, pith, fruit into a pulp, I use an immersion blender to do this.

Heat the oven to 180° and butter and line a 21cm cake tin.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Add the sugar, ground almonds and baking powder and stir everything together with a metal spoon.

Fold the clementine pulp carefully but firmly into the other ingredients using a metal spoon.

Pour the mixture into the lined cake tin and bake for about 50mins to 1 hour, when a skewer comes out clean. You may need to cover the cake with baking parchment or foil for the last 20mins if looks like the top is browning too quickly.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin. When the cake is cool, slide it out of the tin.

We didn’t wait.

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Slow, simple and splendid

Ragù: From the French Ragoût or meat stew. This term has been adopted for long-cooked rich sauces, especially in Emilia-Romagna for their Ragù alla Bolognese which often served with tagliatelle.

Tagliatelle al ragù

I don’t know about you, but I like my ragù rich, dense, comfortable and cooked very slowly, a three hour gurgling simmer with an occasional blip of a bubble on the back of the stove. I like it made with half beef, half pork and a little pancetta, with red wine not white. It should be very very discretely tomatoey, so a soft brown colour rather than raging red, it should contain milk added towards the end of the cooking. I like it to cling- to but not overwhelm the pasta, which is usually fresh egg tagliatelle.

That’s how I like ragù.

It’s taken a while, I followed recipes and took advice, much advice – I live in Italy, advice about food is omnipresent and served in abundant portions with seconds especially if you are English. I made a lot of ragù, I ate a lot of ragù and ummed and ahhed and furrowed my brow in a….good but…..I can’t quite put my finger on it…..do you think if I added..….way.

For a while I settled on a very good and authentic Bolognese ragù recipe as my template, nearly nearly we all mumbled approvingly. Then I came across the wise and witty Rowley Leigh’s recipe, which is virtually identical to the one I’d been using (his recipe has clear Bolognese origins) except for a couple of little quirks in ingredients, proportions and style that nudged it towards pretty perfect in my ragù book. His recipe is beautifully balanced; first a trio of fat, oil, butter and the pancetta; then the holy trinity, onion, carrot and celery softened slowly slowly. Now the meat, half beef, half pork, a very discrete quantity of tomato, a flick of nutmeg, red wine, stock, the addition of milk towards the end of the cooking which is long and slow.

Talking of perfect, a word I overuse, I think tagliatelle al ragu is a pretty perfect laid back late autumn/ December supper and a relaxing one too if you make it in the morning for eating that night. The usual suspects arrive – it doesn’t matter if they are early or late as ragù is endlessly patient and accommodating as to when it’s served – you open the wine, Volpolicella maybe, some salami and olives to start while the water for the pasta comes to the boil and you gently re-heat the ragù. If you feel like it, you can make a green salad for after the ragù and before the deep ruby-red poached pears you made a day or two before. Supper, simple and splendid.

As you know, I don’t make pasta. I can, but not well and I find the whole experience quite stressful. I buy it wrapped up neatly in waxed paper from Gatti – pasta all’uovo in Via Branca who make better pasta than I can ever dream of creating at home. I suppose this address isn’t really very helpful if you don’t live in Rome, unless of course you decide to come and visit, in which case we will go together.

I am convinced ragù is better after a rest, the flavours are mellower, gentler and even more comfortable. I generally make ragù in the morning – sometimes the night before – to eat that evening.

The recipe

Tagliatelle al ragù

Adapted from Rowley Leigh’s ‘No place like Home’

serves 4 – 6

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 25g butter
  • 50g pancetta chopped very finely
  • 1 medium red onion peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 sticks celery peeled and finely chopped
  • 200g ground beef (shin or chuck is good)
  • 200g ground pork
  • 2 tablespoons tomato purèe
  • 250ml dry red wine
  • 250ml chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a pinch of nutmeg
  • 100ml whole milk
  • 500g fresh egg tagliatelle
  • freshly grated parmesan

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large heavy based pan (earthenware or enameled cast iron is great) add the minced pancetta and cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring every now and then.

Add the finely chopped onion, carrot and celery to the pan, stir and allow them to soften over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes.

Turn up the flame and add the ground beef and pork, season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper then stir and turn the meat constantly, breaking up the clumps until it is evenly cooked on all sides and it has lost all trace of its red raw colour.

Add the tomato purèe and a grating of nutmeg and mix well before adding the red wine, stock and bay leaf.

Bring the pan to a gentle boil and then turn the heat down so the ragù cooks uncovered at the laziest of simmers with the occasional blip of a bubble for 3 hours.

The ragu will need very little attention at first, a stir every 1o minutes. After 2 1/2 hours the liquid will have reduced and the sauce will be thick, rich and syrupy and so you can add the milk, stir and leave simmering for the final 30 minutes.

Taste and add more salt if necessary.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and gently drop in the tagliatelle and cook until al dente – still firm but not hard in the middle. Drain immediately in a colander, saving a little of the cooking water and then return the pasta to the pan and add the sauce. Working quickly mix and turn the pasta in the sauce and add a little of the cooking water to get a nice creamy coating of sauce on the pasta.

Serve immediately with plenty of freshly grated parmesan

ps

I have not abandoned my chestnut cooking, far from it, we are overwhelmed by the nutty brown things around here and the kitchen is very very sticky from another very chaotic session of chestnut jam making and my adventures in marron glace making. Not sure which part to inflict on you next.

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Tuesday

It’s been another cold, grey and rather soggy day in Rome. The rather sad looking inflatable Father Christmas the family opposite have bound to the balcony railings has been blown upside-down and now his head is in a plant pot. I think I know how he feels.

The market was uncharacteristically quiet this morning, none of the usual bussle and choas. I felt a momentary wave of panic, maybe something terrible had happened?  Or maybe Roma football team had suffered and the most humiliating loss the night before, this is Testaccio afterall, the home of the Roma clubhouse, fans make pilgrimages here? No, if that was the case everyone would look grumpy and deflated. Maybe everyone was simply hiding their head in a Pot ?

I talked to my fruttivendolo Vincenzo for a while, watching him trim cicoria while I ate two clementines and pretended to understand when he broke into a Rant about something complicated, the parking maybe, in heavy and wonderfully blasphemous Roman.

I arrived home with two very handsome bulbs of fennel with green wispy, feathery tops like the headdresses of Las Vegas showgirls, two bunches of carrots, 2 large purple onions and a rope of yellow ones.

For lunch I chopped a head of fennel into thick half moons, did the same with a red onion and then cut 4 carrots into unruly chunks. I chucked everything in a baking tin, doused the whole lot with plenty of olive oil and Maldon salt and slid the tray a fairly hot oven – about 200°/ 400F I think – for about 40 minutes, until the vegetables were soft, shriveled and just starting to caramelize and char at the edges.

But rewind, while vegetables were roasting I cooked some farro which I am notoriously slap dash about, no soaking, no hour-long simmers which leave the farro too soggy and mushy for my taste. I cook farro like rice, plunging it into plenty of salted boiling water and then cooking it at a lively simmer for about 25 minutes until the farro is tender but still slightly nutty and chewy, then I drain it. I never cook less than a cup /125g of farro at a time which works out at about 4 nice servings when cooked, it keeps really well it the fridge and I am always grateful when it’s on hand.

So farro ready, I pulled the vegetables from the oven, shriveled indeed, but how gloriously shriveled, soft and sweet and deep with flavour. Ah the joys of vegetables doused in oil, seasoned with salt and roasted in a hot oven. Lunch.

Farro with roasted fennel, carrot and red onion

It was extremely good. The red onion, fennel and carrot are a particularly good roasted vegetable combination, one to remember, and the farro makes a perfect foil, robust and nourishing but not righteous, it’s nicely chewy, almost sweet and delightfully nutty.

I left the door open while I had lunch which meant a bit of a draught, but lots more light and a perfect door framed view across the courtyard to the other balcony where he still had his head in the plant pot.

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Chestnut diary

So,

If my chestnut adventures were going according to plan, following Mondays Chestnut and mushroom pate and the chestnut soup, I should be sitting here writing about a chestnutesque main course.

Plans, schmans, I’ve never been very good at sticking to them. I’ve leapt straight to the cake.

Chocolate and chestnut cake

I do intend to leap back again and make the four chestnut recipes I’ve leapfrogged and I’m sorry I’ve messed up the logical order of it all, but I’m not sorry I cut to the cake.

Cake? It’s really a very soft, moist, heavy-mousse like gateau made of dark chocolate, butter, eggs, and milk that’s lent a whiff of cakeness by the floury, nutty texture of the 250g of roasted, peeled chestnuts which act like flour. It’s very like the Trish Deseine/Orangette gâteau au chocolat fondent di nathalie with chestnuts. It’s dense and rich and rather like eating a good dark chocolate truffle alongside a spoonful of sweet chestnut purèe (if you haven’t had a spoonful of this I highly recommend it.)

It’s a chocolate and chestnut swoon. I know, I know, that sounds really really naff, very Mills and Boon. Swoon is what the heroine Portia probably does in the historical romance ‘Tall dark and disreputable’ by Deb Marlowe on learning her brooding lover Matteo has gambled away the family fortune and slept with the maid. This is the other swoon, the ‘To be overwhelmed by joy‘ swoon, and it happened when I (we) took the first, second and seventh mouthful of this cake. After swooning – ok, it was a tiny swoon – we both stared at each other, wide-eyed and then Vincenzo blasphemed heavily in Italian as a compliment, I agreed and promptly cut myself another large slice and discovered you can have too much of a good thing.

Apart from being delicious, this cake is the most beautiful way to understand and observe how chestnuts work in flour-like-way (chestnuts are of course often dried and ground into heavy, slightly sweet flour.) Having made this cake I’m even more curious about experimenting with chestnuts and chestnut flour. This recipe also gives you a glimpse into the glorious potential that is chestnut purèe, because one of the stages is slowly and gently heating the roasted and peeled chestnuts in whole milk and then blending the two together into a smooth thick purèe/ paste. Of course you taste the paste before you add it to the rest of the ingredients and when you do, you can’t help but imagine all the other things you could do with this thick creamy, nutty chestnut purèe, the tarts, the creams, the ice creams and filled meringues…..

On a practical note it’s all very straightforward to make and I’m sure you can do it with a lot less equipment than me – I don’t know what came over me, 3 pans, 6 bowls, 4 spoons and 3 bowl scrapers it was comical and very very unnecessary – 2 pans, 3 bowls, 1 spoon and a single scraper should cover it. I did get a bit nervous about cooking times, but I always do with instructions like ‘cook until just set but still has a slight wobble‘ the just suggesting there is a crucial just moment you have to catch, like a ball. I needn’t have worried, it was pretty obvious when the top had completely set and a jiggle of the oven shelf confirmed the slight wobble. It was also after exactly 27 minutes of cooking time (the recipe says 25-30minutes) which was very reassuring. The top cracking is apparently quite normal

Served still warm this is really pudding-like. You can use a cake slice to serve it but only just, and you may well need a spoon as well as it will be very soft and very moussy. If you leave it for couple of hours, the cake cools into something more fudgy, still moist but denser, more slicable. If you don’t eat it all in one day keep it in the fridge, in which case it becomes even firmer and more compact which is also delicious.

I’m very glad this cake is as good as I’d hoped it would be because it means I’ve finally found our less traditional pudding for after the goose on Christmas Day.

Chocolate and chestnut cake

Adapted from Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall’s recipe in The River Cottage Year

Serves  8 – 10

Grease and line a 25cm cake tin (the springform type is good) and set the oven to 170°/

Melt the cubed butter and chocolate broken into pieces in a small pan over a low flame.

In another pan warm the milk and the chestnuts until the milk is nearly boiling. Remove the pan from the heat and mash the chestnuts into a paste in the milk with a potato masher or blend with an immersion blender.

Separate the eggs yolks from the whites and beat the yolks with the sugar in a large bowl. Add and fold the melted chocolate and butter to the yolk and sugar and then the chestnut and milk puree. You will have a gloopy batter

In another bowl whisk the eggs whites until they form stiff peaks and then fold them into the rest of the ingredients.

Tip the mixture into the lined tin – carefully. Bake at 170°for 25 – 30 minutes until it is just set but still has a slight wobble.

If you want to serve the cake warm, let it cool a little and then very very gently release the tin and slide it onto a plate, carefully, it will still be very soft, delicate and moussey. If you leave it to go cold it will set firm.

Very good with a blob of heavy cream but it’s hardly necessary.

Chocolate and chestnut cake on a chestnut wood table.

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Chestnut days

To begin…..

a patè of wild mushrooms and chestnuts

After, Chestnut and borlotti bean soup

As I mentioned on Sunday, we have been given a large quantity of very beautiful, deep brown, smooth and glossy sweet chestnuts. I adore chestnuts so I was quite delighted and jumped around. Delight dissolved into mild panic at the sense of responsibility for such a nice gift (I still can’t talk about the last gift, the quinces, I am still ashamed) and the prospect of all the peeling. But that too dissolved and delight returned as we roasted and then gobbled the first chestnuts and I began making chestnut shaped plans.

Growing up in England we had chestnuts, but only very occasionally and almost exclusively at Christmas. Probably in the stuffing, almost certainly roasted in the embers of the fire and maybe, if we were lucky, my Dad would buy my Mum a box of marrons glacès to be offered around. But that was it, our chestnut quota until the following year.  I’m not sure why, we all liked them and my Mum was a thoughtful, seasonal cook and occasional forager. It’s not as if they were an exotic delicacy, we could buy the larger european ones or hunt down the smaller English ones throughout the autumn. Whats more there was a sweet chestnut tree – not to be confused with the horse-chestnut tree which provided us with conkers to be hurled at each other -  at the bottom of our road and Rothamstead park had several vast, old, gnarled trees which shed their prickly husks amongst serrated leaves from October. We just didn’t.

I only really started to cook and experiment with chestnuts when I came to Italy. Italians love and prize chesnuts – afterall they were a staple food here for thousands of years, they deserve to acknowledged – and they do such nice things with them that it becomes quite impossible to ignore, forget or neglect them especially in Autumn, the chestnut coloured months right up until Christmas.

So, the chestnut shaped plans…..

Well, I found 56 recipes I would like to make, most of them Italian or French and many from a lovely small but perfectly formed book by Ria Loohuizen about the history, culture and cooking of chestnuts called, quite appropriately, On chestnuts the trees and their seeds. My mum gave it to me for my birthday 3 years ago, 21 september 2006, I know because she always dates the inside cover.

I finally narrowed it down to 8 recipes – which reads like a rather grand dinner to be held in Umbria sometime in October (I know just the place) – 3 of which I have made before, a patè, a soup, a main course, 2 fine accompaniments involving bacon, a dessert, a cake and the hush……marrons glacè…… I would of course start at the beginning, the patè.

I am not actually suggesting this as a complete meal unless of course you want to see if a chestnut overdose is possible. I imagine each course could be a meal in itself with appropriate bits and frills. Having said that we did go for a chestnut double yesterday and have the first two chestnuts courses for lunch, the terrine, with plenty of nice bread and some pickled gherkins and the soup with a blob of creme fraiche.

But before we go any further….

Preparing the chestnuts

In Italy there are two types of chestnuts one is the small castagna commune (common chestnut) which is small and flat nut because each prickly burr contains 2 or 3 smaller nuts. The other is the (cultivated) larger, plumper marrone which is a single nut in a single prickly burr. The marrone has sweeter, jucier flesh and more of it. I like both.

When buying or collecting sweet chestnuts, look for the nice, hard, unwrinkled, shiny ones, which aren’t dented or cracked. They should have a certain weight, if they are light or soft or rattle they are old and have been kept too long. They will be dry and mean tasting.

The secret to cooking fresh chestnuts is cutting the shells properly so the shell and the tough astringent skin underneath comes away easily. Wash the nuts and then soak them in warm water for 20 minutes so the shells are easier to slash. Using a small sharp knife or a special chestnut knife make a horizontal cut across the curved side of the nut leaving the flat side uncut.

Now, I sometimes boil and I sometimes roast chestnuts before peeling them, it all depends on the recipe. For the following patè and soup I think roasting is best. So, put the slashed nuts (a little more than the required weight to account for the shells) on a baking tray and roast at 200°/400f for 25 minutes. Once they are quite tender and the skin hard and crisp, take the chestnuts out of the oven and wrap them tightly in a tea towel so the chestnuts steam a little and the shells come loose. You can also crush the chestnuts slightly while they are still wrapped so the shells break. After 10 minutes unwrap and peel the chestnuts.

So the patè

Patè of chestnuts and wild mushrooms

Adpated from Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

I’ve made this before and I love it. I want to ramble on about the thick, rich texture of chestnuts and how they are hearty and sweet yet deeply savory at the same time, how well they go with mushrooms, that this feels like food from another time, that I wish I could write poems about chestnuts………. To top it all I used a fresh porcini which was very extravagant but very very tasty.

You can use any kind of mushrooms for this recipe including ordinary cultivated ones but in general the wilder the better. As I have already said, serve at room temperature with pickled gherkins, onions, lots of nice toasted bread and a bottle of rough and ready Chianti. Spread thickly.

  • 100g mushrooms
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small red onion finely diced
  • 250g chestnuts cooked and peeled
  • 25g good butter
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 or 6 juniper berries (optional)

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth; never rinse mushrooms or they become soggy. Chop the mushrooms finely.

Warm the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms to the frying pan and let them fry gently for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Puree the chestnuts with a food processor, hand blender, mouli-legumes or mash them with the back of a fork,add a tablespoon of warm water if they seem too dry.

Add the soft butter and chestnut purèe to the onion and mushrooms in the frying pan, add a grating of nutmeg and stir all the ingredients with a wooden spoon until they are well incorporated.

Pack the mixture into an earthenware terrine or small bowl and decorate the top with juniper berries.

Leave the mixture to set in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Serve at room temperature.

Now the the soup

Chestnut and borlotti bean soup

Adpated from Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

serves 4 very well

I once ate a wonderful bean and chestnut soup in Umbria. I tried to ask what type of beans they had used but my wonky italian and English accent confused   the waitress who scuttled away whispering ‘fagioli fagioli‘ (beans beans) which didn’t really narrow it down. Anyway the colour of the soup suggested borlotti which made sense as I have always thought borlotti beans have a nutty rather chestnut like quality to them. So I experimented.

I like this soup very very much, the richness and texture of the chestnuts make a wonderfully thick, substantial, velvety soup and the colour…well it’s chestnut, which I think is quite beautiful.

It is a lovely lunch for a cold day accompanied by some toasted bread and a simple green salad for after.

  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium onion peeled and finely diced
  • I slim leek, cleaned and finely sliced
  • 1 stalk celery finely diced
  • 400g cooked borlotti or cranberry beans
  • 400g peeled chestnuts
  • 1 litre of chicken, vegetable stock or water
  • salt and pepper, nutmeg
  • crème fraiche

Melt the butter in a large soup pan and saute the onion until it is soft and translucent. Add the leek and celery and a little salt and let the vegetables gently fry on a low heat for 5 minutes.

Add the beans and the chestnuts to the pan, stir and allow everything to cook together for a few minutes.

Add the stock or water and bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let the soup simmer for 25 minutes.

Pass the soup through the mouli-legumes, blast with a hand blender or purèe with the food processor. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Stir.

Serve the soup very warm but not really hot in warm bowls with a blob of crème fraiche.

Practical things

Fresh chestnuts can be kept for days in a cool place or for weeks in the fridge, We can also learn from animals who keep them under a layer of leaves and go leaf collecting or simply lay our chestnuts in box and cover them with a layer of sand. Chestnuts freeze very well once you have peeled them.

The last thing.

The oldest chestnut tree, one of the oldest trees in the world, grows on the Island of Sicily on the eastern slope of the volcano Etna, and is known locally as Il castagno dei 100 cavalli, ‘the tree of 100 horses’. The legend has it that during a thunder-storm the queen of Aragon found shelter for herself and the 100 horsemen who accompanied her on a visit to mount Etna. This magnificent tree, which is estimated to be between 2000 and 4000 years old has been described since the 16th century in the diaries of many travellers, and sketched or painted by artists. When the Scottish traveller Patrick Brydone, who was initially doubtful it was one tree, measured its girth in 1770, he found it to be 62 meters.

Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

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Filed under Beans and pulses, chestnuts, food, patè and terrines, recipes, soup

C is for Chestnut

This is just some of our chestnut (marroni) bounty. It’s the nicest present anyone has given me for ages.

I have cunning and maybe rather overly optimistic plans for the other 3 kilo’s. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the marathon boiling, peeling and cursing session that lies between me and my chestnut patè, soup, stuffing, purèe and hush….marron glacès….. but I know it will be worth it whatever I end up making

Anyway to start, to ease ourselves gently into our chestnut feasting, we roasted some. In the absence of an open fire or a clever chestnut pan we simply cut a cross on the flat side of each nut – I have a special little chestnut knife with a stumpy curved blade – sprinkled them with water and roasted them in a hot oven until the skin started curling away and the chestnuts were soft and tender, about 25 minutes.

We ate them after Saturday lunch, perfect with the end of the Chianti and before the clementines and chocolate.

It was all rather festive and dare I say it……… Christmassy. This took me by surprise as I’ve been feeling ever so cynical and mildly bah humbug lately. Clearly chestnuts are good for my spirits, or maybe it’s just red wine at lunchtime.

Anyway, must get peeling.

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Filed under chestnuts, Rachel's Diary