This post goes out to the lovely Marie — long-time resident of Pender, and gardener, landscaper and plant-identifier extraordinaire — for her help in turning around my chestnut karma. I don’t know what I did in my past lives, or if it’s just that modern food distribution is seriously messed up, but 98% of the 3 different batches of Korean-imported chestnuts I bought from 3 different stores in the Victoria area were rotten. And not just a little rotten. I’m talking black, moldy, dessicated to nothing, rotten. Less than a dozen usable specimens from over $30 in nuts.
But before I launch into the “When I was a kid, the chestnuts we bought at Safeway were never rotten” rant (which I can feel on the tips of my fingers), let’s return to Marie. Because she’s the reason I have chestnut love back in my life.
Her call came via Facebook. A casual Oh yeah, there’s an American Chestnut tree over here, and after that windstorm they’re all on the ground waiting to be harvested, roasted and cooked. Perhaps? You? Like?…
Chestnut spaetzle with spinach, mushrooms, pine nuts and parmesan, served alongside an Italian-inspired stuffed turkey wing. I removed the large drumstick-like bone and attached meat, then ground it together with a little fatty pork, fennel seeds, lemon zest, pepper flakes, and egg and s+p. I stuffed that mixture back into the pocket left by the skin, basted it all with melted butter, then roasted it in a hot oven for about a half and hour. The video shows you what I’m talking about (except that I deep fry it in the video — for the record, we preferred this oven roasted one.)
I made it with Christmas dinner on the mind. We’re going to Vegas with my Mom this year, but my favourite type of Christmas is the one when were holed up alone, just the 2 of us. I love family and friend gatherings all through the holidays but, if it was up to me, the big day would be spent at home…with presents, books, old movies and rich, decadent comfort food…made ahead and easy to heat up.
I like to call it Celebrating in Comfort with Ease.
(But I’m not complaining about 3 nights in Sin City either. I’m always up for a new experience, and Christmas in Vegas should be memorable…)
Here’s my haul o’ nuts. American chestnuts are smaller and sweeter than the European variety, which were what the purchased ones were that I had such rotten luck with.
About half of them, after roasting, went into a soup that was rich with cream and sherry, but not quite refined enough to share (yet).
I ground the rest into flour. There was not a rotten one in the bunch. Hmmm.
Because they were fresh out of their prickly coats, most of the shells were easy to peel with the quick flick of my paring knife. I blanched the rest in boiling water for a couple of minutes to soften them first.
I dry roasted 1 pound of shelled nuts at 350 F for 40 minutes, until they were lightly golden and nutty smelling, and then left them on the counter overnight to fully dry.
The next day, I ground them in small batches in the coffee grinder I usually use for spices. (My food processor hardly even made a crack in them.) I sifted each batch, and reground the coarser bits that got caught in the sieve. At the end of it all, my 1 lb of hand-harvested chestnuts gave me 1 1/2 cups flour.
Let’s just say I use it only after great consideration. It adds an earthy dimension to breads, cakes and pasta. And I feel rather lucky to have a small stash of it at the ready.
If you don’t have a reliable source of chestnuts, you may want to buy the flour direct. December is the time of year to find it — although the flour can be more elusive than chestnuts themselves. Check high-priced Italian boutique groceries (I’m afraid to say it’s going to cost you.)
It’s a good thing it takes just a little bit of chestnut flour to make a big flavour impact.
My favourite pasta/noodle to make at home is spaetzle. An Austrian/Swiss/German/Hungarian (did I miss anybody?) soft-textured egg noodle that is boiled before a final fry in (clarified) butter. Its easy, fast and you can keep the par-boiled noodles, tossed with a little oil, in the fridge for up to 3 days before frying them just before serving.
There is no rolling nor stuffing, but there is a spaetzle maker. I don’t usually advocate one-use kitchen accessories, but for spaetzle I make an exception. If you don’t have one, you can use the back of a spoon to push the dough through a colander, cheese grater or whatever else you can MacGyver together.
And then, when you fall in love with spaetzle, you’ll go to your favourite kitchen supply store and spend $10 on your own maker. Mine is one of the most-used accessories in my kitchen, even though it only does one thing.
We like spaetzle around here. Could it be the fried in butter thing?
(Click on the title below for a printable version of the recipe.)
Yield: Serves 4 as a side
A rich, warming dish that is at home alongside just about anything: pork schnitzel, grilled flat-iron steak, a stuffed winter squash or, for Christmas, a stuffed turkey wing. If you don’t have chestnut flour, substitute any other flour that sparks your imagination — even if that’s just more all-purpose.
All-Purpose Flour – 1 Cup (150 g)
Chestnut Flour – ⅓ Cup (50 g)
Eggs – 2 Large
Milk – ¾ Cup (180 g)
Nutmeg (freshly grated pref.) – pinch
Salt – ¼ tsp (2 ml)
Ground White Pepper – pinch
Olive Oil – 3 Tble
Shallots, minced – ½ Cup (2 large)
Mushrooms, diced – 1 Cup (6 large)
Garlic, minced – 2 tsp (2 large cloves)
Spinach, chopped – 2 cups (½ bunch)
White Wine – ½ Cup
Butter – ¼ Cup (if you have clarified butter, use that)
Pine Nuts – ¼ Cup
Parmesan Cheese, grated – ½ Cup
s+p – to taste
Make the Spaetzle:
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.
Stir together the flours, nutmeg salt and pepper in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs together with the milk. Add the milk to the flours and stir until smooth. The mixture should be thick, but still pourable.
Place the spaetzle maker (or colander) over boiling water, pour the dough into the chute and slide it back and forth. The spaetzle are done when they float on the water, about 1-2 minutes. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and shock in an ice-water bath until cool. Drain well.
Transfer the cooked spaetzle to a baking sheet lined with a clean, no-lint dishtowel to dry. Repeat with remaining dough. Once all of the spaetzle are cooked and relatively dry, move them to a bowl and toss with a teaspoon of olive oil to prevent sticking. Cover and refrigerate (up to 3 days) until just before you’re ready to serve.
Cook the Vegetables:
Heat the olive oil over med heat until shimmering. Add the shallots and mushrooms and sweat until soft. Season lightly with s+p, then add the garlic and spinach. Cook, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and reduce almost dry. Remove from the heat, cool, cover and refrigerate (up to 3 days) until just before service.
Finish the Dish:
Remove the spaetzle and vegetables from the fridge.
Melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan over med-high heat. When the butter is bubbling, add the spaetzle and pine nuts without overcrowding the pan. (If your pan is too small, cook the dish in 2 batches.) Cook, undisturbed for 2 minutes, then stir. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the spaetzle and pine nuts are light golden. Add the vegetables, and cook until everything is hot. Taste and season with s+p.
Spoon onto 4 plates and garnish with parmesan cheese. I also garnished mine with a little cilantro oil, that just happened to be in the fridge. Chili Oil would make a great garnish too.