Just when you think the last of the seasonal delights has come and gone from the market stands, when the corn and tomatoes have gone by the bye, when even Brussels sprouts and celery root are seeming old hat, and the next new thing to anticipate are the pungent ramps of April, May's asparagus, many wintry months away: Along come the chestnuts.
I wasn’t at all expecting to see them as I made my way through the produce section at the Seward Co-op last week. I had a mess of other dishes on my mind, based on the plethora of squashes, the verdant bouquets of kale in my garden, the last few pickings of green beans, and my newly dug potatoes. But there they were, the first of the season, fresh up from Iowa (I’m not completely sure, but I think they must have come from the J & B Chestnut Farm in Winfield, Iowa), and I couldn’t resist them. They should be around for a while now, so I just bought a small sack full, and traipsed gaily to the checkout with glowing anticipation of many happy chestnut moments to come.
Yes, I’m a produce geek, I can’t deny it.
Chestnuts are by no means as common as squash or Brussels sprouts, of course. They’re a relatively new arrival in our market, as a few growers see their hybrid chestnut groves mature, bringing back a once-common tree that disappeared with the chestnut blight that swept the continent with a terrible swiftness in the early part of the 20th century. Chestnuts, indeed, are something of a rarity, certainly a delicacy, with a price tag to match, $10 a pound or more. The best ones are meaty and sweet, and they suggest nut, fruit, and vegetable all at once. They can go savory or sweet, main course to dessert, equally well, and they cross continents and oceans in their appeal--you’ll find chestnut recipes from France and Italy, and well as China and Japan.
Before the Real Bread hiatus, our chestnut bread was a seasonal favorite, inspiring fervid devotion among our customers. Indeed, there were people we didn’t hear from all year until chestnut bread time--generally early November, when the chestnut flour was ready--came around.
I’ve got a Sichuan chicken and chestnut recipe that I love, surprisingly mild considering its region of origin. This recipe is a simplification and Westernization of that dish, using hard apple cider where the Chinese version would use rice wine, increasing the amount of meat to make a single main dish. I really like the Chinese way of making a meal from several dishes of equal status, along with rice, but when I’ve got the season’s first chestnuts, I don’t want anything else stealing the spotlight.
We used our own hard cider from home-pressed apples. I realize that good hard cider can be hard to find, and if you can’t find one that you like, I suggest this ersatz: In place of the cup of hard cider called for below, use a ¾ of a cup of good sweet cider, 1 tablespoon of good apple cider vinegar, and top it off with a bit of water. That won’t be the same as the hard cider, but it won’t be bad, at all.
Chicken with Chestnuts and Cider
Serves two generously
4 chicken thighs (or thighs and wings, legs, whatever parts you like; we prefer thighs)
2 tsp canola oil
1 medium onion sliced
1 small carrot sliced
1 cup dry hard apple cider
1 cup chicken stock or water
Salt and pepper
3 sprigs fresh thyme
First you need to get the chestnuts out of the shell. With good, fresh chestnuts, this isn’t difficult. Begin by cutting an X into the flat side of the shell, just barely penetrating the shell without cutting into the meat. I like to take a small paring knife, and (CAREFULLY!!!) grasping nearly the entire blade in my fingers, draw the tip of the blade across the shell. Once the shells have been scored, you can roast them on the stove top (our woodstove, the Haggis, is perfect for this) in a heavy skillet (like cast iron), until the flaps of shell created by your Xs start to peel back; or place the nuts in a pan in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Peel the nuts as soon as they’re cool enough to handle. Carry on as below.
Salt and pepper the chicken pieces. Heat the canola oil in a high-sided skillet or dutch oven, and brown the chicken well on both sides, about 15 minutes total. Remove the chicken from the pan. Brown the chestnuts over medium low heat, watching carefully, turning frequently so they don’t burn. Remove and set aside. Pour off excess fat, leaving about 2 teaspoons. Add onions and carrot. Saute until the onions are wilted about 5 minutes. Add the cider, scraping up the brown bits with a wooden spatula. Add stock or water, the thyme, and a pinch of salt. Return the chicken to the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook partly covered for 30 minutes. Add the chestnuts and cook for another 30 minutes. By this time the liquid should be considerably reduced. If you want a thicker, sauce-like consistency, remove the chicken and chestnuts and reduce the sauce over high for a couple of minutes. Taste for salt, and add a little more pepper if you like.
Serve with buttered noodles, or just a piece of good grilled bread.
Variation: Finish the sauce with a quarter-cup of heavy cream, and you’ll have something that would be quite at home in a Normandy farmhouse.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw