I have been on a chestnut craze lately. At least one day every week seems to end with bum fingers cut up from peeling those frustratingly delicious little nuts. And my goodness, for a food item that seems so plebeian, they are as high maintenance as they come. Some of them don't want to give up their shell for anything, and some of them are moldy, but you can't see their dirty little secrets until after scoring, roasting, and peeling (or, attempting to peel) each and every one. But for all the wasted time and energy that goes into a bad chestnut, the ones you do manage to salvage are just so goddamn delicious.
There aren't any nostalgic stories from my past about roasting and eating chestnuts with my family during the winter. Such activities simply never occured. The most I can dig up is this one recollection I have of my mother making braised duck and throwing in some vacuum packed cooked chestnuts near the end to offer additional heartiness to a dish that was already a beast in itself. But oh was it good. The rich, fatty sauce coated the chestnuts and enhanced their already fragrant flavor. Whether or not it was that one experience from my youth or my general preference for salty over sweet, I have been trying to incorporate these guys into anything that is not a cake or cookie; first stuffing, then fish, and now soup.
I have been craving chicken soup like mad. Chicken noodle, chicken and wild rice, and especially chicken and dumplings. My first blog post ever was about chicken noodle soup and how much I loved it, though I could have been more accurate in saying I love any kind of slow-simmered-chicken-stock-based soup, but that's a little verbose. Unfortunately, having made a very large turkey not too long ago, I couldn't bring myself to make a meat based soup so shortly after.
Some of you may know about my perpetual but sometimes futile attempt to eat less meat due to both animal welfare and environmental reasons. I actually have this goal of not eating pork during the entire month of January because pigs are just so smart and cute, but with my awful weakness for any kind of cured pork...we'll see how it goes. Thus, in an effort to get motivated for this endeavor, I made a mushroom, chestnut, and dumpling soup in place of the chicken and dumplings I was really craving. It was a mighty fine substitute and, in my opinion, even heartier than the original.
After having bought at least 10 pounds of chestnuts in the past month, it is my belief that the ease in which they part with their shell is almost entirely dependent on where the nuts are sourced from. Every single time I have bought fresh chestnuts from the street-side vendors in Chinatown, they have been gosh darn impossible to peel, it's as if the fuzzy brown skin on the inside of the hard shell is super-glued onto the actual flesh of the nut. I don't know what breed of chestnuts they are selling or where they get them from, but I am done with that crap. When I have bought them from other stores, usually labeled as "italian chestnuts" they have been quite nice and the whole chestnut usually comes out without much fuss.
Serves 5 to 6.
For the soup:
12 oz fresh chestnuts in shell
1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
8 cups water, divided, plus more as needed
4 tbsp butter or olive oil
1 & 1/2 lb assorted fresh mushrooms (such as cremini, shiitake, chanterelles), sliced thin
10 oz pearl onions, peeled
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry sherry
2 bay leaves
1 to 2 pieces of parmesan rind
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
fresh herbs such as basil or parsley for finishing
For the dumplings:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup buttermilk
4 tbsp butter, melted
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Using a sharp knife, score X's on the rounded portion of each chestnut, making sure your cuts are deep enough to slice through the fuzzy brown skin on the inside of the shell. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Blanch chestnuts for 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast in oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, cover with a towel and let stand for 10 minutes until cool enough to peel without burning yourself. Note: make sure to peel them while they're still warm, the task will be much more difficult once they have cooled completely. Peel the chestnuts, discarding both the tough outer shell and the fuzzy inner skin. Discard any chestnuts that have formed mold. It's okay if some of them break or crumble, we need bite sized pieces anyways. Cut any whole chestnuts into quarters and set aside until ready to use. You can wrap them in foil and refrigerate overnight (but no longer) if not using right away.
Place dried porcinis in a medium heat-proof bowl and bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Pour the hot water over mushrooms and let them steep for 30 minutes. After the time has passed, remove porcinis from the liquid and slice into small pieces. Strain the steeping liquid through a fine mesh sieve lined with a cheesecloth and set aside.
In a large dutch oven on medium high heat, melt butter and cook the re-hydrated porcinis, fresh mushrooms, and onions until most of the liquid has evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the mixture cook for another minute, stirring frequently. Add sherry and cook for about 30 seconds until absorbed. Add the reserved porcini broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly so the flour does not clump together. Add the remaining 6 cups water, bay leaves, and parmesan rind. Bring to a boil, turn heat to low, add chestnuts, and simmer with the lid barely cracked for 30 minutes. Add additional water as needed if the soup is reducing down too much.
About 5 minutes before your 30 minutes is up, make the dumpling dough. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add butter, buttermilk, and stir to combine with a spoon until you have a thick batter (do not over mix or you'll overwork the gluten and have chewy/gummy dumplings). Fish out and discard the bay leaves and parmesan rind. Drop dumplings in by the heaping tablespoonful, cover, and simmer for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until puffy and cooked through. Top with fresh herbs and serve immediately.