Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chestnuts, Le Pain Des Pauvres

Chestnut season arrives as the night falls quickly, the evening air becomes chilly, and the geese begin their flight south for the winter. By October, the nuts begin falling from the branches. Their fruit is ripe when the fuzzy, spiky outer casings turn from lime green to straw gold. Harvested when the farmer's fields become more sparse, time allows for forest gleaning of autumn nuts and mushrooms. The chestnuts are gathered from the orchard or forest floor and often ground into flour for baking through the winter months. In the old days, chestnuts were regarded as le pain des pauvres, the poor man's bread. Since the chestnut has a low oil content, theree was little worry of the flour turning rancid.

Peeling them from their shells is the kind of chore that would have been done by the family around the evening fire. The European method is to score the shells along the concave side and roast them briefly in a hot oven or skillet. The shell will begin to curl away from the meat, and they must be peeled off while still hot. While they are warm and pliable, the inner papery skin will rub right off, but once cool, this bitter husk clings tight to the nut. The papery husk also comes off if the nuts are dried after peeling the shell. As the nut contracts, the paper separates from the meat much easier. Then the meat need only be reconstituted before eating.

The French regard the chestnut by two names, the marron, in which the nut is one whole piece, and the chataigne, divided into two or three pieces by the husk. The more attractive marron commands a higher price, and is used in ways that show its attractive appearance.

The nut has a strong seasonal charm and fares well in soups and purees, where its rich, woodsy flavor is uninhibited by it's dry and crumbly texture. Usually eaten with wild game, mushrooms, truffles, and roots and fruits of the season. Pumpkins, potatoes, parsnips, celery root, cabbages, apples and pears are great combinations. It has also long been a favorite winter confection in breads, cakes and puddings, or the coveted confection, marrons glacees (pronounced glah-say). Marrons glacees are gently simmered with honey until it becomes translucent, tender and sweet.

Gather some chestnuts for the cold months and try some of these simple French recipes, but if you are gathering them from the forest rather than the marketplace, beware of the horse chestnut. Terribly bitter and toxic, it has a similar leaf and shell appearance, but the nut casing is a fleshy green outer husk instead of the spiky straw husk.

In the northern Willamette Valley, there are several chestnut orchards. Ladd Hill Orchards in Sherwood is owned by Ben and Sandy Bole, and they sell all sorts of chestnut products from their website. In late winter, their whole dried chestnuts are wonderful.

Pumpkin and Chestnut Soup
Soupe au Potiron et aux Chataignes

Slice two onions and place them in a pot with a few spoonfuls of duck fat. Simmer gently while you peel a pumpkin and remove the seeds. You'll need about two or three pounds of flesh, roughly chopped. Add the pumpkin and about twenty peeled chestnuts to the pot along with one quart of duck stock, and a bouquet garni. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, season gently with salt and pepper. Cook the squash until tender, about twenty minutes, then remove and discard the bouquet. Puree the soup in a blender, and if you want a little more richness, add a little cream at the end.

Chestnut and Cognac Puree
Puree de Chataignes au Cognac

Simmer about two pounds of chestnuts in one quart of milk with a little salt and white pepper. After about thirty minutes, once the nuts are tender, puree them with the milk and return to the pot. Stir in about four ounces of butter and four ounces of cream. Once you have the consistency that you like, stir in two tablespoons of cognac. This is a great holiday accompaniment to roasted venison leg.

Venison Leg with Pears
Cuissot de Chevreuil roti aux Poires

Trim the venison leg and tie the muscle groups with butcher's twine and season with salt and pepper. Cover the venisoon with milk and marinate overnight. Set the oven at 325 degrees. Drain and dry the venison and sear the meats in a pan to achieve some caramelization. Place the meats in a roasting pan. Peel the pears and toss them in a bowl with a little butter and cinnamon, and add them to the pan. Baste the meats with beurre montee, melted butter emulsified with a little water. Baste and rotate the meat as it cooks, and roast for 20 to 30 minutes depending on the size of the roasts. When the roast reaches medium rare, allow the meat to rest before slicing. Slice thinly against the grain of the muscle, and spread the slices over chestnut puree, on a platter surrounded by the roasted pears.

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