chestnut soup

One year ago - Lentil and Pomegranate Soup

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Squeaking in just in time to wish you all a Happy New Year, including to all our wonderful Food is Love grandmothers, of course, and to you our readers (especially everyone in Australia, where it's already 2018!) 

  Coming in to land... just in time for New Year's Day! My favourite photo from 2017

Coming in to land... just in time for New Year's Day! My favourite photo from 2017

All the usual blessings: health, wealth, happiness and a great year ahead, filled with adventures and contentment, old recipes and new ingredients.

Perhaps our biggest adventure in 2018 here at Food is Love will be finally putting together a book with all the life stories and recipes we have been gathering and testing over the past months. This is the year!

Hope 2018 is wonderful for all of us.

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THAT OLD CHESTNUT

This month I’ve been cooking with a new ingredient – chestnuts. They’re not new to European grandmothers, but somehow they did not feature much when I was growing up in Australia. I remember them when I lived in London, sold on the street, in steaming paper packages to warm your cold hands during winter, but I didn’t cook with them there either. They have not been available much in Jerusalem while I’ve been living here; till this year, when they’re are suddenly everywhere, farmers’ markets, supermarkets, so I’ve taken the plunge.

First time I’ve gone from roasting the nuts through to making the soup and it’s been a grand experiment. The soup below is simple, just 3 ingredients plus some spices, but it’s a knockout. One of the best things I’ve made this year. Subtle, rich, delicious.

I’m baking a chestnut dessert now too, but I want to get this post out while it’s still New Year’s Day in Australia. I’ll include the torte next week, in a New Year’s Baking special. So far, it smells sooo good!

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CHESTNUT TREES

Chestnuts, it seems, have always been with us. You can read about them in the Bible and in Shakespeare. Different strains grow in Europe, Asia and America. They were a staple with American Indians, who taught the Puritans to cook chestnuts in stews and to grind them into flatbreads.

Chestnuts trees flourish on hills and mountainsides with good drainage, in countries like Italy, Iran, and Turkey. Baba Schwartz, may she rest in peace, one of the grandmothers in this project, often spoke to me about the chestnut trees she remembered fondly from her childhood in Hungary.

Planting chestnut trees is a commitment, though, as they are very slow growing. They take as many as 15 years to bear fruit, and don’t bear optimally not until they are about 50 years old. You plant chestnut trees for future generations.

In Languedoc, in the south of France, they have a saying: 

"Olive tree of your forefather, chestnut tree of your father, only the mulberry tree is yours."

Also, chestnut rees growing alone rarely bear much fruit. They require close proximity to pollinate well. Love a sociable tree!

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MEANINGS

Chestnuts have evolved different symbolic meanings across cultures. In English when we don’t have much to eat, we refer to surviving on bread and water. In French they say "fasting on water and chestnuts."

An old Corsican wedding tradition was to prepare 22 different chestnut dishes for the wedding day. In Japan, chestnuts symbolize both success and hard times. Served as part of the New Year's menu, chestnuts symbolize mastery and strength.

So this is a good time to make this soup!

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NOTE ON STOCK: If you have real chicken stock, this would be the ideal soup for it. I think it would make it strathospherically more delicious. I didn’t have any and just used good quality vegetable stock powder. I added more than usual, which only seemed to enhance the taste.

If you cannot obtain fresh chestnuts, you can buy them pre-roasted in vacuum sealed packages in health food shops. I'd estimate  you need around 400 g for this soup. Will weigh them shelled when I make the next batch!

Chestnut Soup

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 cups stock
  •  750 g fresh chestnuts – see note below on how to prepare them
  •  2 medium onions (yield: 1 cup chopped onion)
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • 4 whole cloves
  •  1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper
  •  Optional: 2 tablespoons madeira or brandy
  •  Milk or cream,  ½ cup to thin out soup. If you want to make this vegan, use coconut milk.
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method

1.      Preheat the oven to 230C/ 450 F (10 degrees less if fan-forced.)

2.     To roast the chestnuts, you have to make a slit in the shell so they don’t explode in the oven. (I did both a slit and an X and found no difference, so I’d advise just one cut, it’s quicker.) Lay chestnuts on their flat side and with a sharp knife slice across the top of each. It doesn’t matter if you slice the flesh of the chestnut, it is going into the soup and not on show!

3.     Throw into a colander and rinse in hot water. Place still wet onto a baking tray, pour in another 1/4 cup water and bake for 15-20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel off the shells – and the inner more stubborn layer as well. Best to work quickly as they are easiest to peel when warm. If they cool down too much just re-heat and finish the job.

4.    Reserve 2-3 chestnuts for chopping up and sprinkling over the soup at the end.

5.     While the chestnuts are cooking, chop the onions. In a large saucepan cook the onions in butter over a low-medium heat. After 10-15 minutes, throw in the chestnuts. You can simply stop cooking the onions while you peel the chestnuts, then throw them in (minus 2 or 3) and cook over a medium heat. Add madeira or brandy here if using. After 5 minutes, when everything is well-coated in butter, pour in the stock. Add cloves and bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer over medium-low heat for 45 minutes.

6.    Cool. (Can be left overnight in the fridge.) Puree the chestnut mixture in a food processor or blender. You are meant to remove the cloves and the bayleaf, but I forgot, and it added another great layer of flavor. So if you have a high-powered blender, which will really blitz them to bits, I would recommend keeping them in!

7.     My version turned out to be very thick. It tasted amazing, but I did want to thin it out a little. I thought cream would be too rich, so I tried coconut cream in one batch and ordinary milk in another. Half a cup is a rough guide. Add as much as you need to get a consistency you like. I think I preferred the plain milk, as the soup was rich and sweet enough without coconut.

8.    One person has suggested adding 2 tablespoons of vanilla ice cream instead. I’m just throwing that out there, haven’t tried it myself…

9.    Serve with a bit of chopped parsley and some chopped roasted chestnuts.

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VERDICT

Make this soup. It's soft, velvety, creamy even before you add cream and has a rich, sweet taste. For 3 basic ingredients – onions, chestnuts and stock – it is a complete winner. Am addicted and will make another batch soon! Of course, if you want it to be vegan, use vegetable stock and coconut milk. It will also be gluten free.

OLIVE OIL

Last week I went up north to interview Ami Ayalon a former Chief of Israel’s Navy and its Security Service the Shin Bet.

As I was leaving I asked about a sign advertising olive oil I’d noticed at his neighbour’s home. Was it any good? “It’s my wife’s and it’s very good!” he replied. 

  A   New Year's feast - organic olive oils, olive soap and of course olives!

A New Year's feast - organic olive oils, olive soap and of course olives!

So his wife Bilha took us down to the olive room to show off the Cnaani range. (Checkout their FB page here.) It’s made by her son and Cnaani is her maiden name. Bilha's father changed his name from Handelsmann to Cnaani when he came to Israel in the 1930s. Choosing new Hebrew names was fashionable at the time, but his father, Grandfather Handelsmann, wasn't impressed. “If you change the family name, your new name will die out,” he warned.

“And he was right,” says Bilha. "My father had 3 daughters, so there is no more Cnaani name. But now there is Cnaani olive oil,” she smiles.

There were 5 vats of the latest new season oils, made from different olives and also a blend. They are pressed from organically grown olives and are extremely low in acidity – 0.8 is the recommended amount, these were 0.29.

  Spot the Hitchcock like dog's tail?

Spot the Hitchcock like dog's tail?

There was a huge variety of flavour. Some were really peppery, and others tasted almost of grass. The cameraman and I both bought some olive oil and soap to take back to Jerusalem, a true New Years gift.

As the French say, chestnut trees are from your father, olive trees from your forefathers.

  Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!