Roasting Chestnuts and Foraging in Spain

by Elena on January 12, 2015

Chestnuts and Dad

What the heck are these prickly looking things scattered all over the forest floor? Well if you must know they are the inimical outer shell of the chestnut!  I love this impromptu picture of my dad holding a bunch of chestnuts.  It reminds me of Sean Brock and his outstretched hands on the cover of his Heritage cookbook.  My dad, quite the ham, would make a great cover of a Gallego cookbook, cooking the things that grow in our backyard.

During our trip to Spain, my dad and I were on our way to pick the remaining chestnuts of the season. I hadn’t really thought about how chestnuts grow; I was too busy fancying myself Rene Redzepi, foraging the mountains behind my grandparents home. It’s funny how popular foraging has become what with  foragers showing up at the doors of restaurants all over New York City, with their spoils of morels and ramps at their feet. Chefs pay a lot of money for the trouble someone had to go through when scavenging the woods of the Northeast. In this small corner of Spain however, my family and their neighbors have foraged since they were children, eating chestnuts,walnuts, and mushrooms from the woods. Spanish hospitality is often linked to food which is why every visit to someone’s house ended with them trying to gift us some of their goods; friends shoving chestnuts, apples, and cured meats in our direction as a thank you for our visit. Even while looking for chestnut trees we passed a friend who himself forages mushrooms, something I wouldn’t dare to do with my lack of experience, especially in unfamiliar territory.  As he told us, a family closer to the city had to rush to the hospital after eating mushrooms that turned out to be poisonous.

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It goes without saying that these little orbs of spikes completely threw me off.  My dad used gloves to break apart the spiky shell. I, having forgotten my gloves at home, used a very different approach and stepped on them until they split open.  We gathered bags and bags of them. I couldn’t help but think of the prices of chestnuts back home, sometimes as much as $6.99 a pound, as I scattered a multitude of chestnuts to dry out on our kitchen table. There were still many more chestnuts left behind, scattered all over the forest floor, that would sadly get moldy and saturated with water from the rainy days ahead.  However chestnuts are always in abundance in Galicia. Through the winter you can find them in every household and even in the cities vendors sell them freshly roasted on small portable grills on most busy street corners.

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Chestnuts are not only very popular in Galicia because they are delicious; they are even linked to pagan rituals such as the coming of Autumn in a festival called Magosto, where people celebrate with food and wine and sometimes a pig slaughter to prepare for the winter. I love the mysticism of Gallego culture, the superstitions and age old traditions started who knows how long ago. Like the Celtics that settled in the Northeast of Spain, we still celebrate and commemorate the dead and we even chant spells to keep the evil spirits away during a queimada. Like most old traditions and stories, they have evolved as a form of celebration and reveling like dressing up for Halloween or leaving treats for Santa or the Easter bunny. But when you walk through the woods in Galicia you can feel the whimsy of the atmosphere like you just stepped foot in a storybook.

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Needless to say we ate a lot of chestnuts, and even though most of the locals said that the chestnuts this season were ‘no good’ compared to other years, I enjoyed my roasted chestnuts every evening while watching Spanish television with my grandmother. We roasted them, braised them and I even made soup out of them. There was no possible way that we could eat them all so like everyone else we tried to give them away to family and friends far from the area. Back in New York I still bought some chestnuts every now and then.  I never seem to get sick of them. One day I wanted to make a dish with roasted  winter vegetables and brighten them up with pepper, lemon juice, and herb oil. I combined a lot of the winter products I had in my fridge like chestnuts, fennel, hen of the woods mushrooms, and  Jerusalem artichokes to make a roasted winter vegetable salad. To continue with my chestnut kick I retested the butternut and chestnut soup I made in Spain back in my apartment in NYC.  The chestnuts give more depth to the butternut soup and of course a nutty flavor. The chestnuts do make the soup a lot richer so I added creme fraiche as garnish to add some tartness.

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Winter Vegetable Salad
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Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • 16 roasted sunchokes (see below for recipe)
  • 16 braised chestnuts (see below for recipes)
  • 2 fennel bulbs, cut into quarters lengthwise
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups hen of the woods mushrooms, shredded into small smaller pieces about an inch wide
  • 2 tablespoons of herb oil
  • 1 lemon
  • Garnish with fennel fronds
Instructions
  1. While the sunchokes and chestnuts are cooking (see below) take the four quarters of one fennel bulb and with each quarter slice them very thin, lengthwise with a knife of mandolin. Set aside in cold water.
  2. Take the other four quarters of one fennel bulb and cut ½ inch thick planks lengthwise. They will look like wings. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large sautepan and sear the fennel planks until soft and golden brown, about 5-7 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Wipe out the same pan. Heat up the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and sear the hen of the woods mushrooms on high heat until golden brown and tender, about 2-3 minutes.
  4. Assemble: Combine all ingredients on the plate and sprinkle with olive oil and the juice of a lemon. Garnish with herb oil, fennel fronds, fleur de sel, and aleppo pepper.

 

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Braised Chestnuts and Balsamic Glaze
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Serves: 6 servings
Ingredients
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 medium shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 cup red wine or port
  • 2 pounds shelled chestnuts, roasted and peeled
  • 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Instructions
  1. In a large saucepan melt the butter. Add the shallots and cook on a low heat until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Raise the flame until the shallot turn slightly brown, about 2 minutes.
  2. Deglaze the pan with the red wine or port and let the liquid reduce to half.
  3. Add the stock and thyme sprig and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cover the pan. Let cook until the chestnuts have absorbed most of the liquid, about 20-30 minutes.
  4. If you want to add a balsamic glaze, turn up the heat to medium, pour the balsamic and let the balsamic reduce until it creates a glaze. Be careful not to over reduce.

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Roasted Sunchokes
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Sunchokes are sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes
Ingredients
  • 1 pound sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon aleppo pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sumac
  • Salt to taste
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a medium bowl toss the sunchokes, olive oil, sumac, lemon juice, aleppo, and salt.
  3. Spread the sunchokes on a foil lined baking sheet and roast until tender about 25-30 minutes.

 

Chestnuts and Butternut

Butternut and Chestnut Soup
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Recipe type: Soup
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Serves: 10-12 servings
Ingredients
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 leek, white part only, sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup chestnuts, cooked and peeled and chopped
  • 3 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into large cubes
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 1 quart of water
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • Garnish with creme fraiche and roasted chestnuts
Instructions
  1. In a large pot melt the butter and saute the onion, garlic, and leek over medium heat until they are soft and the onion is translucent.
  2. Add the white wine and reduce by half.
  3. Add the chestnuts and cubes of butternut squash to the pot. Add the water, chicken stock, turmeric, coriander, and nutmeg and bring them to a boil.
  4. Reduce to a simmer and cover pot. Cook until everything is tender about 30 minutes.
  5. Working in batches, blend the soup until smooth and return to the pot. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Garnish with creme fraiche and roasted chestnuts.

 

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Roasted Chestnuts
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Ingredients
  • 2 pounds chestnuts
Instructions
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Make an incision on each chestnut, either a crisscross on top or a slit on the side, deep enough to get through the shell and touch the chestnut inside.
  3. Roast the chestnuts for 30-35 minutes.
Notes
Chestnuts are easier to peel when they are warm. Using gloves or a side towel gently press the chestnuts with the palm of your hand until the shells split open.

 

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