Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Visit from a Chestnut Expert and a Recipe for Savory Chestnut Bread Pudding...a Holiday Side Dish or Brunch Centerpiece

 Last night was my "Holiday Side Dishes" class. Deborah Milks from Chestnut Charlie's in Lawrence, Kansas came to the class and gave us a short presentation on chestnuts. Chestnut Charlie's has been growing certified organic chestnuts since 1998. For local readers, their chestnuts can be purchased at Whole Foods in Overland Park and the Community Mercantile in Lawrence. They also have an on-line ordering system.  Even if you don't wish to order, you should visit their website.  It is a great resource for recipes and reliable information on chestnuts.

As I watched the presentation, I was struck by how much I was learning in a short amount of time. There is nothing like watching an expert with hands-on, working knowledge of their topic. I have been using chestnuts for many years, but I only had bits and pieces of information that I had picked up here and there—some of it good, some of it not so good. I felt like some of the gaps in my understanding of chestnuts were filled in last night. I thought that today I would share a few of the things I learned.

I had read on the internet that chestnuts were not supposed to be consumed raw. This is not true—one of the farmers at my market who sells American chestnuts (Chestnut Charlie grows and sells Chinese chestnuts) and Debbie Milks both confirm this. They are perfectly fine for eating raw if you like them that way. The scoring and heating process that I described in my previous post is primarily to loosen the shell and underlying skin (the pellicle)—although extending the amount of time the unpeeled nut is exposed to your chosen heating method will effectively cook the chestnut.

When the chestnuts are first harvested they are full of water and are starchy. As they age, the meat of the chestnut begins to lose its moisture and the starches begin to be converted to sugars. The meat of a fresh chestnut has some give and tenderness to it. The meat of a chestnut that has been stored properly for a while has begun to harden—but it is also much sweeter. How you cook your chestnuts will depend on how old they are. A very fresh chestnut will not need much cooking. An older, harder chestnut will need to be cooked in some liquid for a while to soften it up. A dried chestnut can be rehydrated by soaking in can also be ground into flour.

Because chestnuts contain very little fat, dry heat cooking procedures can turn them into tooth-breaking rocks.  This means that if you are roasting chestnuts in the oven in order to peel them, the older they are, the less time they should spend in the oven. Roast them only until the shell begins to open up and no longer. Also, if you are going to be cooking a peeled chestnut by roasting it (in a medley of roasted vegetables, for example), your chestnuts need to be very fresh and you need to make sure that you coat the chestnut with a sufficient quantity of fat to protect it from the drying heat of the oven.  The time in the oven should be of a short duration.

All of the above provides valuable information for me as a cook. Cooking with chestnuts is like cooking with any vegetable or fruit—it is highly interactive. Taste and touch your ingredients to know what they need and what methods they will respond to. Sample the chestnuts before you begin to cook with them. How hard are they? How sweet? If I have older chestnuts that are a bit firm and I want to make the Brussels Sprouts recipe, I might simmer them in some lightly salted water before adding them to the cream. But you might not. There isn't really a correct "doneness" for a chestnut. How long you cook it is up to you—your purposes and your tastes.

Finally, a word about how to keep the chestnuts that you purchase from becoming moldy. As I mentioned in my previous post, chestnuts should be purchased form a purveyor that stores them under refrigeration.  You should keep them refrigerated when you get them home. If stored at room temperature the natural protective enzymes in the nut will die and the chestnut will become more subject to molding. Do not store the chestnuts in a sealed container—the moisture they release as they age needs to be able to evaporate. If they are stored in plastic bags (or other type of air tight container) the moisture will be trapped and create an environment that is hospitable to mold.

The second chestnut recipe that I shared last night is a savory bread pudding that I have been making for several years for my private dinner clients. I serve it mostly as an accompaniment to roast beef—usually tenderloin or prime rib. A savory bread pudding as a companion for a roasted meat may seem a bit odd, but if you think of the pudding as a creamy version of dressing, then it doesn't seem strange at seems elegant. I like to serve this combination with roasted carrots that have been finished with a little Dijon mustard—the carrots add beautiful color to the plate and the flavor compliments both the beef and the bread pudding.

The original bread pudding recipe does not include the chestnuts, but when I saw the recipe it seemed to be a perfect home for chestnuts. The sweet flavor of chestnuts goes well with all the primary flavors in this dish—kale, bacon and cream—and the presence of the chestnuts adds a nice holiday feel to the dish. Even though I know chestnuts are harvested in September and October, I still think of them as a holiday food.

Savory Chestnut Bread Pudding

1 1/2 lbs. fresh chestnuts, peeled (to make 2 1/2 to 3 c. peeled chestnuts)
8 oz. bacon, cut crosswise in 1/2-inch strips
1 medium to large onion, cut in a 1/4-inch dice
3 ribs celery, cut in a 1/4-inch dice
butter or olive oil as needed
1 lb. Kale (2 bunches), stemmed and coarsely chopped (wash the kale, but do not spin it dry)
1 2 lb. loaf country-style bread or 2 baguettes, crusts removed and cut into 3/4-inch cubes—you should have 12 cups of cubed bread
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 c. milk
2 c. heavy cream
1 c. chicken stock
Salt & Pepper to taste

Place the chestnuts in a saucepan and cover with salted water by an inch or so. Simmer until the chestnuts are just tender—5 to 10 minutes. Drain and cool.

Meanwhile, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp. Remove the bacon to paper towels. Pour off and reserve all but a tablespoon or two of the fat. Add the onion and celery to the pan along with a pinch of salt and sweat until just tender. If the pan seems dry, add more bacon fat or some olive oil or butter. Add the kale to the pan a handful at a time and cook, covered, until wilted and tender—15 to 30 minutes depending on the kale. If there is a lot of liquid left in the pan once the kale is tender, uncover and continue to cook for a few moments until most of the liquid has evaporated. (See note below for alternative method.)

While the kale cooks, slice the chestnuts. Sauté the sliced chestnuts in a large nonstick skillet in bacon fat (or butter) until golden—use enough fat to help the chestnuts to sizzle gently.

In a large bowl combine the cubed bread, kale, bacon and chestnuts; set aside.

Whisk the eggs, milk, cream and stock together. Season to taste with salt & pepper and pour over the bread/kale mixture. Turn to coat.

 Allow the mixture to sit, stirring occasionally, until the bread has absorbed the custard—30 to 60 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a buttered 3-quart baking dish

or divide among 16 buttered 6 oz. ramekins. Bake the bread pudding(s) in a 350° oven until the custard is set and the top is golden—about an hour for the large casserole, 30 to 45 minutes for the individual ramekins. Let the large casserole sit for 20 minutes before serving. Let the small ramekins sit for 10 minutes before turning the puddings out. The bread pudding can be made 1 to 3 hours ahead of time. Let sit at room temperature. Reheat in a moderate oven to serve. Serves 12 to 16. 

(Recipe adapted from Food & Wine, December 1999)

Notes & Variations: 

• If you prefer, the kale may be cooked in a large quantity of rapidly boiling, salted water until tender—this should only take 5 to 10 minutes. Drain the kale, press out the excess moisture and add to the pan with the cooked onions and celery. Cook briefly to allow any remaining liquid to evaporate and to allow the flavors to blend. Taste and correct the seasoning.

• The original recipe did not include chestnuts. It was simply a Kale & Bacon bread pudding. If you prefer not use chestnuts, use 2 1/2 lbs. of kale.

• Create your own savory bread pudding by replacing any or all of the cooked kale, bacon and chestnuts with other cooked ingredients of your choice—sautéed mushrooms, toasted pecans, dried fruits, blanched or roasted vegetables (cut into small pieces),sautéed apples or pears, etc—you will need about 5 to 6 cups of cooked additions for the full recipe.

• This recipe is easily halved for a smaller crowd. Use a 1 1/2 quart baking dish.

Do-Ahead Tips: All of the components of the bread pudding may be made early in the day or the day before. Cook the chestnuts and bacon as directed; combine, cover and refrigerate. Cook the onion, celery and kale mixture as directed; cool, cover and refrigerate. Cube the bread and store, covered with plastic wrap, at room temperature. Make the custard and store, covered, in the refrigerator. Bring all the components to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.


Julie said...

I love chestnuts, and really enjoyed all the info! The last time I bought fresh chestnuts, I was so excited to eat them that I forgot to cut slits before putting them in the oven (this was many years ago; I like to think I'm a better cook now!), so they exploded when I took them out. Actually a bit scary. Your Brussels sprout recipe sounds dreamy, but I might stick with vacuum-packed.

carlos said...

In Portugal we have now chestnuts available all year long but most people eat them only during october and november. Fortunately some of us do love chestnuts enough to know its true value.
We are trying to expand the information on chestnuts to more people interested in this magnificent fruit, so we create a website dedicated only to chestnuts:
In there we tried to include all the relevant information regarding the chestnuts, not only from portugal but also around the world.