I love teaching this class. I think this is mainly because my family (like a lot of families) pretty much has the same thing every year—things that my mother and grandmothers served at the holidays. There are those in my family who would be mightily disappointed if these old favorites didn't show up on the table. By developing and testing new recipes for these classes I get to enjoy the best of both worlds: new holiday recipes to enjoy all month long and the old family favorites on the big day.
Today's recipe for Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts is something that will probably show up on our dinner table with great frequency...it is delicious—and so easy that it doesn't have to be reserved for a holiday. Although its ease of preparation should make it appealing for the holiday table too. I think one of the things that overwhelms cooks at Thanksgiving is trying to make too many complicated dishes. I always tell my classes that one or two "show stopper" items is enough—any more than that and your guests taste buds will be overwhelmed anyway.
Two of the recipes in my class this year include chestnuts. If you have never cooked with chestnuts, you should definitely try them. You can of course purchase vacuum-packed, peeled chestnuts. Williams-Sonoma and Trader Joes, among others, carry them. But fresh chestnuts, having been harvested in September and October, are in season now. As with all ingredients, they are superior in their fresh form. Purchase them at a store where they are kept under refrigeration—if they are out on the floor in baskets or barrels, they will most likely have begun to spoil and mold. The chestnuts that you buy should be firm and heavy for their size.
To peel a chestnut, most sources will tell you to first cut an "x" on one side of the chestnut. The owner of Chestnut Charlie's suggests a much easier and much more effective method. Using a short serrated knife (or a chestnut knife) and holding the chestnut firmly in one hand while choking up on the serrated knife in the other, drag the knife across the rounded side of the chestnut, making a shallow, horizontal slit in the shell. Once this slit has been cut, there are many ways to heat the chestnut up to help release the shell and underlying skin, which must also be removed. The nuts may be simmered in water for five minutes, or roasted in a hot oven (covered or uncovered—I have seen and done both) for 15 minutes or so. The nuts are ready to peel when the slit that you cut begins to widen.
My new favorite heating method is in the microwave. I place 5 or 6 at a time in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes (on full power). Because chestnuts must be hot when they are peeled—the inner skin is almost impossible to remove once the nuts have cooled—it is important to choose a method that allows you to fall into an easy rhythm of cooking, cooling slightly and peeling. For me, this is the microwave. You may like one of the other methods better. Keep a towel handy—it sometimes helps to grab the hot chestnut with a towel as you peel it. Once you establish your rhythm, you will be able to produce a respectable pile of peeled chestnuts in no time.
I would like to be able to say that I developed the recipe that I am posting today, but I didn't. I found it in an old issue of Gourmet and tweaked it slightly for use with fresh chestnuts. The original recipe in Gourmet calls for vacuum-packed chestnuts, which tend to be softer than fresh chestnuts.
Brussels Sprouts and Chestnuts in combination are a holiday classic. The sweetness of the chestnut is said to offset the bitterness of the Brussels Sprouts. But after looking at and trying multiple recipes, I was beginning to wonder what the fuss was about. The recipe from Gourmet is deceptively simple—there is really nothing in it except chestnuts, Brussels sprouts and cream—and it is very good.
I suspect that all of the wine and vinegar and onions/shallots/garlic/etc. that I had been finding in other recipes were covering up the delicate balance and interplay of flavors between these two ingredients. It is so often the case that we mask flavors by trying to make things "more" special.
1 1/4 cups water, divided
1 c. peeled chestnuts, cut into quarters, uniform small chunks or coarsely crumbled
2 T. unsalted butter
1 t. kosher salt, or to taste
Bring butter, salt and remaining 1 cup water to a boil over high heat in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet (the water should fill the pan to a depth of about 1/4 inch). Add the Brussels sprouts and thyme and simmer, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until the Brussels sprouts are crisp-tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the lid and boil over moderately high to high heat until water is evaporated and the sprouts sizzling in the butter and beginning to caramelize, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the cream along with the chestnuts. The cream will boil and reduce rapidly upon coming in contact with the hot pan, so stir constantly with a heat proof spatula, encouraging the thickening cream to coat the sprouts and chestnuts. If the cream is still too liquid, return the pan to moderate heat and simmer until the cream lightly coats the sprouts and chestnuts. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper. Serves 8.