Fine Cooking (December 2009/January 2010)
Last month, we had a roasted chestnut soup at a restaurant here in DC. Tasting it for the first time was an almost religious experience. Sweet, nutty and silky-smooth, the soup was just one of those foods that instantly warms your soul. We couldn't stop smiling!
A couple days later, we saw pints of chestnuts at the farmers market. We decided to grab some and see if we could replicate that heavenly bowl of soup. By a stroke of luck, we came home, opened our December/January issue of Fine Cooking, and found this recipe for Chestnut Soup with Crisp Prosciutto.
Several days after that, DC got its first snow of the season. For eight hours on a chilly Saturday, fat wet flakes fell silently outside the windows.
Could there be any better day for this soup? We would literally have chestnuts roasting...okay, not on an open fire (our landlord wouldn't like that). But we were excited about the smell of roasting chestnuts wafting through our house while we gazed at the Christmas tree and the falling snow.
The universe, it seemed, was telling us to make this soup.
But the universe had some tricks up its sleeve.
As per the recipe, we dutifully soaked and scored the chestnuts, and then roasted them in the oven for a half hour. As we'd hoped, the scent was transformative as it rose from the oven and filled our apartment.
But when we tried to peel the nuts, something was off. The meat in the center was rock hard. According to the recipe, you should be able to "spoon out the nutmeat." Ours would've required the jaws of life.
What had we done wrong? Simple, it turns out: We'd let out chestnuts sit too long on the counter. What had been fresh chestnuts at the market had hardened into little stones while they sat for two weeks on our kitchen counter.
We vowed to try again. So a week later, we picked up some more chestnuts (this time from the supermarket, since there were none to be found at the farmers market that week).
We soaked. We scored. We roasted.
This time, perfection! We cooked them for slightly less time than the recipe calls for (25 minutes versus 30). The nutmeat nearly slid out of the shells, and they were easy to chop up.
The rest of the soup is a very basic preparation -- saute the leeks, add the chestnuts and herbs, add some stock, simmer for a half hour. Then you blend the whole thing to get a nice smooth texture.
Two quick notes:
1) The only labor-intensive part of this is scoring and peeling three pounds of chestnuts. It takes a long time, and it's tedious. And the peeling works best when the nuts are still warm. So if you have two or three pairs of hands for this, it'll be much easier.
2. We actually ran the soup through a blender twice, to get that silky-smooth texture we were looking for. It's not necessary, but we thought it gave the soup a much nicer texture.
So how was the taste?
Astoundingly good. Indescribably good. Warm-your-soul-and-make-you-smile good.
This soup will change your life.
It was just so gorgeously rich and smooth. And for a soup this luxuriously creamy, it's really shocking there's not an ounce of cream in the recipe. Trust us, you wouldn't need it. The chestnuts hearty and rich enough on their own.
The thyme and the prosciutto -- we actually fried up a little bacon, instead -- just propel this soup into the stratosphere. The salty bits of porkfat and the fresh, herbal notes of the thyme are perfect counterpoints for the soup's rich sweetness.
We can't think of a better soup for any winter meal. And, hey! It turns out there's a reason "The Christmas Song" starts off with "chestnuts roasting...."
For an ultra-silky texture, use a regular blender rather than a hand blender to purée the soup.Serves eight to ten.
Yields about 10 cups.
3 lb. fresh chestnuts
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium leeks (white and light-green parts only), halved lengthwise, rinsed, and thinly sliced crosswise
1-1/2 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme; more for garnish
10 cups lower-salt chicken broth
Freshly ground black pepper
2 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into thin strips
Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F.
In a medium bowl, cover the chestnuts with warm water and soak for 25
minutes. Drain and dry with paper towels. Score an X into the flat side
of each chestnut, cutting all the way through the shell. Put them flat
sides up on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until the Xs curl back into
a crown shape and they are tender when squeezed, about 30 minutes. Peel
while still warm, removing both the shell and the inner skin. If a
shell resists peeling, spoon out the nutmeat instead. Roughly chop the
chestnuts and set aside in a medium bowl.
In a 6-quart pot, melt the butter with 2 Tbs. of oil over medium-low heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 7 to 8 minutes. Add the chestnuts and 1 Tbs. of the thyme; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the broth and 1/2 tsp. salt; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the chestnuts are extremely tender, about 30 minutes, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. Let cool briefly. Working in batches, purée the soup, either in a regular blender or with a hand blender. Strain the soup through a fine sieve into a clean 4-quart pot. Set the soup back over medium-low heat and gently reheat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, in an 8-inch nonstick skillet, heat the remaining 1 tsp. oil over medium heat. Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring frequently, until crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 Tbs. thyme and cook 30 seconds more. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels.
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with some of the prosciutto and thyme.