The days grow shorter and the air, much cooler. It begins to feel like winter. Again. Immediate tunes begin to play in my head. Over and over. Nat King Col - The Christmas Song. A song of roasting chestnuts.
The thing is, it isn’t Christmas. It’s June. And although this should be normal for a girl who grew up in Australia - moving continents, living elsewhere, swapping hemispheres – it messes with you. Gets your inner time teller all confused. Even Taj the dog agrees. His fur, after two years in Florida, settled nicely into a new pattern. Now it is June and he is shedding like no other time before. German Shedder. Hair is everywhere. I’m not sure if it is because he is confused too? He should be stocking up for the winter. Maybe he also thinks it’s Christmas. Maybe he is also humming Nat’s tunes.
It’s a good thing we like the cold. And even better that we have an open fire place to roast chestnuts on. Even better than this is having a friend with a really cute fire place, built in the 1890’s and part of a really loveable cottage. Despite the month, or the fire place, the feeling is cozy. And a bit of Christmas warmth is always welcome - anytime of the year.
Australia isn’t known for its chestnuts. But as it turns out, they actually grow really well here (dear Richard and Alison have shown us so). I’m really glad that they do. Their taste is quite moreish and a delight to experience fresh and seasonal, picked up right from underneath the tree. Raw, they almost taste like a carrot and their crunch is so satisfying to a crunch lovers tooth. Cooked, they become so creamy and could lend themselves to either savory or sweet treats. Roasted, their shell blisters and underneath after cracking, their very best flavours all smoky and soft, are unveiled.
It wasn’t difficult to decide to turn my roasted chestnuts into a soup. We were served soup during our visit to the chestnut farm. And with a setting of roaring fires, crunchy leaves and chilled fingertips, nothing other than this soup, accompanied by a warming glass of Cabernet, tasted better. The soup we had on the farm was hearty and full of veggies – tomatoes, onion, chili and chickpeas. So good!
I had heard that chestnuts, when blended, are naturally really creamy. I was craving this blended creaminess. So for a recipe to share, I opted for a creamy chestnut and fennel soup - one that doesn't even need cream. If you're vegan, you're in for a treat.
I have discovered that fennel, other than being a delicious obsession, is also a really good alternative to onion. My belly doesn’t really like onion (a trait I inherited from my dear Grandma) so if I can avoid using it as a base in soups and pasta sauces, I do. And my digestive system is all the happier for it. However, sometimes you really need the bulk and texture of onion. I worked out that fennel is the perfect replacement for this, not only behaving similarly when sweating and browning off in the pan, but it also caramelizes beautifully and adds the most delicate aniseed flavour. Although I added leek to this soup recipe for just a touch of oniony-ness (leeks can be a little more forgiving for us onion sensitive folk) the main bulk hero here is the fennel. Second of course to the real hero – the creamy, smokey, roasted chestnut.
This soup when served up by a fire and all cuddled up on the couch is my idea of cozy. Taj hair, Christmas carols and all.
some tips on roasting chestnuts:
- when selecting chestnuts make sure they are still firm to the squeeze. if they have softened they are old and could possibly be moldy inside. don’t eat moldy chestnuts.
- before roasting always make a long incision into the skin on one side (the rounded top side is best) otherwise you will end up with popping/flying chestnuts. be careful to only cut the skin and not too deep into the flesh, otherwise your chestnuts will break when peeling which becomes a little tricky.
- roasting usually only takes around 20 minutes. if you can, place the chestnuts on a hotter part of the coals for the first 5 minutes and then move them to a slightly less hot place for the remaining 15 minutes, stirring frequently.
- chestnuts must be peeled when warm. once cooked, allow to cool for a minute or two and then peel as soon as possible. gloves or a tea towel can help to avoid being scorched!
- some chestnuts are easier to peel than other varieties. if you are having trouble removing the skin under the shell, use a tea towel to gently rub this away.
- after roasting and peeling, chestnuts loose about 1/3 of their weight. good to remember if your recipe calls for already roasted chestnuts.
Roasted Chestnut and Fennel Soup
prep time: 35 minutes
cook time: 30 minutes
yields: 4 servings
500g fresh chestnuts, roasted and chopped coarsely (see method below)
2 tbs olive oil
1 leek (about 1 cup) sliced
1 small fennel bulb (about two cups) diced
½ cup dry white wine
¼ tsp dried thyme (1/2 tsp fresh thyme)
2 bay leaves
1 litre good quality vegetable stock
¼ tsp flaked sea salt
¼ tsp fresh cracked pepper
Roasting the Chestnuts
Make a fire and allow the wood to burn down to hot coals. Place a large cast iron pan or a heavy based metal fry pan onto the hottest part of the coals to heat up. Make a long incision into the skin along the rounded side of each chestnut. This will allow the chestnut to breathe while being cooked and avoid it popping. Place the chestnuts, cut side up, onto the pan. Be careful not to overcrowd the nuts. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do them in two batches.
Allow the chestnuts to roast for 5 minutes. Move the pan away from the really hot coals to a slightly cooler place (to give a medium high heat) and give the chestnuts a good stir. Cook for a further 15 minutes stirring frequently.
Remove the chestnuts from the fire and allow to cool slightly for a minute or two.
Once they aren’t too hot to touch but are still quite warm, begin peeling them. A handy trick here is to give the nut a squeeze first to crack open the incision even further which should allow the shell to come away easier. Discard shells.
For the Soup
In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the leek and fennel and sweat until just beginning to brown. Add the wine and allow it to bubble for a minute or two. Add the thyme, bay leaves, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered for 20 minutes. Add the chopped chestnuts (save 2 tbs for garnish, if you like) and bring the soup back to a boil for a further 5 minutes, uncovered.
Remove the bay leaves and blend the soup in batches in a food processor. The soup should be a nice, smooth and creamy consistency.
Serve at once with a dried thyme sprig and some chopped chestnuts as a garnish. Enjoy.
All photos were taken at The Cottage Kangaroo Valley.