Once, wherever chestnut trees grew, the nuts were important food for the poor, and yet their taste is luxurious. This chestnut soup, one of my very favorite soups, presents its main ingredient beautifully. It happens to be French, although chestnut soups are made in many places. Chestnuts can be had only during the end-of-the-year season, of course, and the flavor of the soup depends on their quality — the best, when hot, have an aroma of honey — and on the clear flavor of the chicken stock. Along with that, milk is a light, traditional addition that respects chestnut flavor, but for years I’ve instead added cream, as below. Make your stock with a generous quantity of leeks, or reboil it with leeks before adding it to this soup.
If you don’t have homemade stock, don’t resort to canned, whose taste of can permeates anything to which it’s added. Instead, make a different chestnut soup, such as this one from the Limousin, also very good: cook the chestnuts in water together with the typical winter soup vegetables (onion, leek, carrot, turnip, potato), put everything through a food mill (a blender or processor risks making too fine a purée), and then add butter, milk, and cream.
The drawback to chestnuts is the peeling, which, depending on the batch, can be tiresome. Some cookbooks say chestnuts can require an hour or more of cooking after peeling, which may be true of some kinds, but overcooking the chestnuts or the soup at any point will send the chestnut aroma into the air — lost forever.
1 1/8 pounds (530 gr) chestnuts in the husk
2 cups (500 ml) chicken stock
1 1/2 to 2 cups (350 to 500 ml) cream, optional
spoonfuls of crème fraîche for garnish, optional
With a sharp knife, cut an X through the husk on the rounded side of each chestnut. Place the nuts in boiling water, cook for 8 minutes, and take the pan from the heat. Remove 4 or 5 at a time from the water, squeeze to loosen the husk and the skin, and peel them. The skin will slip easily from some and cling to others. If necessary, use the point of a paring knife to loosen tightly adhering bits. As the nuts cool, the skin clings more stubbornly: return those nuts to the hot water to reheat. If any chestnut looks doubtful, smell it, and if you still aren’t certain, taste it; discard any without a clear chestnut flavor.
Place the peeled nuts in a large saucepan, and add enough milk to cover — about 2 cups (500 ml). Cook very gently, without a lid, until the chestnuts are completely soft, about 20 minutes. Purée the hot nuts and milk in a food processor or blender, or pass them through the fine screen of a food mill. For a perfectly smooth texture, pass the purée through a fine strainer. To prevent a skin from forming, cover until it’s time to serve. (The purée can be made a day ahead and refrigerated.)
Shortly before serving, combine the purée with the stock and bring them to a boil over medium heat, stirring now and then. Add enough additional milk, or use cream, to arrive at a runny but not watery consistency. Season with salt. Immediately before serving, reheat the soup briefly without boiling (to preserve the aroma) and ladle into hot bowls. Garnish the all-milk version, if you like, with spoonfuls of crème fraîche.
Excerpted from The Art of Eating © by Edward Behr, used with permission from University of California Press.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new, and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. You have the power to keep us cooking, sharing these stories, and helping you in the kitchen.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table.