Inspired by the menu at Brula on Saturday evening and that three of our party chose chestnut soup, I decided to make some for lunch yesterday. Chestnuts are in season at this time of year – from about October through December. Originally from more southern climates, Sweet Chestnut trees were brought to England and planted extensively as landscaping trees in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now they are seen widely in open areas and parks and are, of course, not to be confused with the Horse Chestnut tree which provides conkers. Sweet, edible chestnuts are often sold roasted from stalls in markets and on streets at this time of year. Popular at Christmas, they’re used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Their sweet woody flavour lends itself well to partnering Brussels sprouts (especially for Christmas dinners), and cabbage or mushrooms. I’ve put them in venison stews and they go well with other kinds of game; on the blog I’ve cooked them with chicken (click here) or as a pasta sauce with mushrooms and bacon (click here). As a sweet purée – marrons glacés – they’re often served in cakes, with meringues and cream (Mont Blancs); they’re good with chocolate and I’ve eaten chocolate roulades with a chestnut purée and cream filling. They can even been made into flour – a use popular with the Romans. The foragers amongst you will love being able to go out and collect your own and I’ve seen bags of them available in greengrocers. I have been known to roast sweet chestnuts – in the oven, not a romantic open fire – and deal with the painstaking job of peeling them. But ‘life’s too short’ … well it is if you’re planning to cook with them rather than eat them straight from a fire on a winter’s night … and who wants to go to all the trouble of preparing them when you can buy rather wonderful ready-prepared ones in packs from Merchant Gourmet.
Making the soup was a sudden fancy. I knew I had a packet of chestnuts in my cupboard and some bread for croutons but then liked the idea of some bits of bacon to garnish it and, of course, a nice dash of cream at the end. So I went to the nearest shop – a Tesco Express just down the road, where I bought some of their Finest bacon (i.e. their best kind) and a pot of single cream. This may seem like an awful lot of trouble to make a snack lunch but this is what I love doing: cooking well and trying out new things. For me it’s relaxation. I did actually have to catch up on some of the ‘day job’ yesterday but a few minutes spent getting my soup under way and then eating it for lunch … well, that’s a bit of gourmet heaven to me!
I only had one pack of chestnuts (200g) and as I was taking chicken stock from the freezer to make the soup, I only wanted to make a fairly small amount as I don’t like to risk re-freezing stock (this recipe gave 2-3 servings). First of all I chopped 1 small onion, 1 stick of celery, 1 carrot and a medium potato. I put them in a large pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and cooked gently until the vegetables started to soften. Then I added the chestnuts and a good pinch of dried thyme.
I stirred it all round and poured over about a pint (600ml) chicken stock, brought it all to the boil and then gently simmered for about half an hour. Meanwhile I prepared the croutons. I cut a thick slice from a 2-day old sourdough loaf, cut off the crusts and cut the bread into large cubes.
Then I cut 1 slice of back bacon into small pieces and fried them in a small pan with no extra fat. Once they were nicely brown I transferred to a small dish. I think streaky bacon might have worked better and given a crispier bacon for a garnish but streaky hadn’t been a Finest option in the little Tesco.
Now I poured some olive oil into the pan and scraped the bacon bits for flavour. Then I threw in the bread cubes and fried, turning to brown all sides.
I transferred these to a dish and then went back to the soup. Half an hour gone and I used a hand blender to blend the soup as smoothly as I could. It was quite thick but I like thick soup; you can always add a little more stock or hot water if you want to thin it. Now I poured in some single cream (maybe about 100ml) and stirred it all together with some black pepper and a little salt. You don’t want too much salt if you’ve used salted stock, but after the cream has gone in taste and check the seasoning is right for you.
It was pretty fabulous (she says modestly!). A good deep chestnut flavour. The soffrito base – the other vegetables gently fried at the beginning – and the stock had given the soup a foundation of great flavour, but didn’t overpower the chestnuts. At the end, the cream adds a wonderful touch of silky luxury.
Serve it with some of the croutons and bacon pieces on top and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil. It made a great lunch but would also be a wonderful starter for a Christmas meal. And while you could make it at any time of year with ready-prepared chestnuts, I can’t imagine eating it in the summer as it seems such a perfect winter dish and, of course, a very special one for the Christmas celebrations that will be soon upon us.