Dried Chestnuts – From Soup to Dessert, with recipe stops at Stir-Fried Red Cabbage and White Chocolate Candy
Admittedly, dried chestnuts don’t have the mashed potato fluffiness of the fresh article. Somewhere between mealy and creamy is about the best they can do. But other than that they’re just shortcut chestnuts: great in soups and stews and stuffings, great with winter vegetables and great in holiday sweets and why they aren’t more widely adored is a mystery to me.
Dried chestnuts and I got married many years ago, when I read somewhere that you could cook them along with brown rice to spiff it up for company. No company necessary; this is a sauce-mop we eat all the time. Just throw in a handful of nuts and add double the chestnut volume of water along with the water for the rice.
Once discovered, they started appearing as the base note in vegetable puree soups, in place of potatoes in chicken stew (hold the carrots or it’ll be too sweet), curried with cauliflower as a meatless main dish and in other locations too numerous.
Most frequent use: cook in water until soft; brown lightly in butter, olive oil or duckfat and mix with whatever winter vegetable happens to be on hand - Brussels sprouts, broccoli , kale, cauliflower, squash…They’re also delicious in green salads: crumble and let soak in the vinaigrette for a little while before proceeding.
DEALING WITH DRIED CHESTNUTS
1. Not all of them are perfect; before using, check for worm holes or other insect damage and discard any that look suspicious.
(1a) Soak for a few hours in cold water if you have the time. Bad nuts will float; cooking will go faster, and – there goes the convenience part – after soaking you can take a toothpick and winkle out the little bits of remaining skin. Not essential. I don’t bother with the rice, for instance.
2. Dried chestnuts can be cooked in any thin, non-acid liquid: water, broth – even milk if they’ve first been soaked overnight in water to cover. Allow 2 cups liquid for each cup of chestnuts if they will be cooked tightly covered, a bit more if some liquid is likely to cook away. Avoid acids like orange and tomato juice unless heavily diluted or you’ll have leather instead of velvet.
3. In water, cooking time is generally about an hour. The richer the liquid, the longer they’ll take. Chestnuts in milk can take two hours or more to soften properly. Always check by breaking a few open, sometimes nuts that test tender with a knifepoint are still tough inside.
RED CABBAGE AND CHESTNUTS REVISITED
Standard recipes for this winter classic call for fresh chestnuts and long simmering, often in red wine. You wind up with a very tasty dish that’s also very rich and soft, not exactly an ideal partner for the heavy meats – roast duck, smoked pork loin, etc. – with which it’s traditionally served. In this fresher tasting version only the chestnuts get the long simmer; the cabbage is more or less stir-fried.
For 6 to 8 servings:
6 oz dried chestnuts, about 1 c.
2 1/3 c. unsalted chicken broth
1 small onion, halved root to tip, then sliced into thin shreds
2 lbs red cabbage, about 1/2 large head, cored and sliced into 1/4 inch ribbons
a 1-inch cube of peeled fresh ginger, shredded on the fine holes of the grater
2 large garlic cloves, shredded as the ginger
2 tbl. red wine vinegar, or to taste
(2 or 3 tablespoons chicken, duck or bacon fat, semi-optional)
1. Combine the chestnuts with the broth in a deep, heavy saucepan and simmer partially covered over very low heat , stirring from time to time, until the chestnuts are completely softened, about an hour and a quarter. Add hot water if broth cooks away so much chestnuts become uncovered.
2. Remove chestnuts with a slotted spoon and reserve. Boil liquid to reduce to a scant 1/2 cup.
3. Transfer the reduced broth to a wok or large saute pan and add the onion, cabbage, ginger and garlic. Cook over high heat, stirring almost constantly, until the vegetables are crisp-tender and the broth has almost cooked away, about 5 minutes.
4. Stir in the chestnuts and keep cooking just long enough to reheat them, then add the vinegar and a bit of salt. Taste. Adjust. This recipe is essentially fat free, so if it tastes flat in spite of adjustment that may well be why. Consider adding a bit of fat before upping the sour and salt.
Variation(s). This is often pushed with sugar and vinegar until it’s sweet and sour. Caraway seeds are a favorite seasoning, caraway and cabbage being like a horse and carriage. If you want to use them, omit the ginger,
(Chestnut and white chocolate candies)
For about 30:
3 oz dried chestnuts, about 1/2 c.
a 2-inch length of vanilla bean
1 1/2 c. low-fat (1 1/2 %) milk
6 oz white chocolate, chopped
tiny pinch of salt
granulated sugar for coating
1. Put the chestnuts in a deep bowl, cover with cold water and soak for 14 to 18 hours. Drain. Pick out any bits of skin.
2. Split the vanilla bean and combine it with the milk in a small, deep, heavy saucepan. Add the chestnuts, partially cover the pan and cook over very low heat until completely soft, about 2 hours. The milk should barely shudder, lower the heat if it threatens to simmer or, heaven forefend, boil. Stir occasionally, removing any skin that has formed. The milk will gradually thicken. If it gets thicker than heavy cream before the chestnuts are done, add a little water
3. Let the cooked chestnuts cool in the milk, then remove them with a slotted spoon and puree through a food mill or in a processor. Rinse the bean and set aside for reuse. Save the small amount of semi-caramelized milk to add to creamed spinach, carrot soup , mashed sweet potatoes, etc.
4. Melt the chocolate in the microwave or over hot water, then mix with the chestnuts and salt. Chill until firm.
5. Cover a cookie sheet with waxed paper, then distribute the chilled mixture on it in teaspoon sized dabs. Again chill until firm, then roll the dabs into balls and roll the balls in granulated sugar.
Allow the Snowballs to sit uncovered in a cool, dry place for several hours or overnight. The sugar will form a light crust. Store in one or two layers in an airtight container in a cool place for up to about a week. After 2 days or so, the crust will soften and the chestnut color will tint the sugar, turning the Snowballs into Sandballs, but they’ll still look and taste fine.
Buying Dried Chestnuts: Some natural food stores carry them in bulk. Some Italian deli’s carry imported ones in bags. There are many online sources, none of which I’ve ever used so you’re pretty much on your own there. But I will say even a brief look showed prices ranging from 12.oo per pound (for organic colossal) to 22.00 per pound (for size and growing method unspecified). Last batch I bought at the deli – last year, I bought many bags – cost I think $8.00 per pound. Just sayin’.