Holding in my hands a hot roasted chestnut, I could see the plump fruit through the slit cut on the charred shell. It was easy to crumble the brittle shell and skin to free the fragrant fruit; it tasted nutty, sweet and a bit like the woods from which it came. The outer shell of a boiled chestnut required my mother's firm hand, while the thin inner skin called for a light touch. Once I was allowed to use the knife, I was fascinated by the way the skin could be peeled away neatly, leaving the chestnut whole. Its texture was creamier than a roasted chestnut, and the flavor subtler, though still nutty.
Seeing chestnuts at the Arcata farmers' market brings back those images from my childhood in Italy. My mother bought local chestnuts from someone in Casperia, the village in central Italy where she grew up. She alternated between roasting and boiling a batch, and we ate them as a special dessert.
I started putting them in dishes a few years ago, and their nuttiness and lightness (they are low in fat, unlike other tree nuts) make them a lovely (and gluten-free) ingredient.
In this earthy and barely sweet soup, chestnuts from McIntosh Farm share the stage with dry beans from Warren Creek Farms and potatoes and herbs from my garden (sometimes the farmers' market supplements my inconsistent growing efforts). You can find McIntosh Farm's chestnuts at the farmers' market on the Arcata Plaza on Saturday morning (until November 23rd) and also at the McIntosh Farm Country Store (1264 Giuntoli Lane, Arcata).
Freeing boiled chestnuts from their shell and pellicle is one of those meditative kitchen tasks that I like to treat as a time to relax. If from time to time a chestnut finds its way into your mouth, make sure you account for that loss by boiling more than you need.
Don't let the length of the recipe alarm you: you can boil the chestnuts and cook the beans ahead of time. After that, making the soup takes about 40 minutes.
A few words about storage: I usually cook chestnuts shortly after purchasing them. However, they can be stored in a mesh or breathable bag in the refrigerator for two to three weeks. When I boil chestnuts ahead of time, I peel them and then store them in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days.
Chestnut, Potato and Bean Soup
½ cup beans, Paul's mix, borlotti (cranberry), canario, or other variety that is good for soup [see below how to cook beans]
8 ounces fresh chestnuts
1 bay leaf
½ to 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 small (or half a medium-large) leek, white and light green portion, cut into half moons and carefully rinsed (save the darker green portion to make broth or stock)
4 fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary needles
9 ounces potatoes, well scrubbed and cubed (I like a mix of purple majesty and Yukon Gold)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup chicken stock or broth, or vegetable broth
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cooking dry beans:
This method comes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. After soaking ½ a cup of dry beans for several hours or overnight in enough water to cover them by about an inch (I use 2 cups), empty the whole bowl into a saucepan and add:
½ a small onion, halved
1 bay leaf
1 small clove of garlic, sliced
A couple of sprigs of fresh parsley
Bring the pot to a lively boil, and keep it there for five minutes, then turn down the heat and let the beans simmer, covered, 45 minutes or more until they are tender. The time depends on the type of beans and their freshness. Let them cool in the broth, then remove and discard the aromatics. Let the beans rest in their broth until ready for use.
With a pointed blade, make a slit across the shell without cutting into the flesh. Place chestnuts in a saucepan and cover them with plenty of water. Add the bay leaf.
Bring to a boil and cook gently until the nuts are tender (test one after 40 minutes).
Keep the chestnuts in the cooking water and take out one or two at a time to peel. Use a sharp knife with a pointed blade to remove the shell, then the skin. Set aside. (If a chestnut breaks, it's fine.)
Preparing the soup:
Warm up olive oil in a pot, then add the shallot and leek. Stir well to coat. After a couple of minutes on medium heat, add sage and rosemary and stir. After a few more minutes, add the potatoes, beans with their cooking liquid, tomato paste and broth, plus enough water to cover ingredients well (about 2 cups).
Cover and bring the soup to a boil, then turn down the heat and cook for 15 minutes. Add the chestnuts and cook for another 15-20 minutes, or until the potatoes are very tender (i.e., you can easily mash one with a spoon on the side of the pan).
Remove the pot from heat. Purée the soup using an immersion blender. If you use a food processor or blender, purée in small batches and use extreme care. You may opt to leave some small lumps, which makes for an interesting texture. Add more water, if needed, and salt and pepper to taste before serving.