Saturday, May 7, 2011

Chestnut and Celeriac Soup

Ah, chestnuts! Ours come from Gembrook. The trees are tucked into a fold in the hill, below a slope of proteas. To the left, persimmons flame orange in the autumn light; near the house at the top of the hill, an old apple tree rustles with kids. We find a sunny spot to picnic, or flop in lime dappled shade to chat with old friends; then don our toughest boots and gloves and free the fallen chestnuts from their spiky casing.

The chestnut harvest is an annual event; but this year we couldn't make it. Instead a friend collected us a basketful of nuts for which I am thankful; and after a year of good rain, this was a bumper crop indeed, the nuts gloriously fat and swollen.

Not only are there now chestnuts in the fridge, but, at the organic shops at least, celeriac is cheaper than potatoes. Brisk mornings, cold nights, leaves changing colour: everything calls out 'Soup! Soup! Beautiful soup!' and I do too.

River Cafe Cook Book Green has an excellent recipe for chestnut and celeriac soup; but as is my wont, I have stripped back a few ingredients and made it a little more rough and ready. My version is perhaps not as precisely and delicately flavoured, but it is cheerfully delicious enough for me. Once the chestnuts are prepared, I can whip it together in a few minutes while kids are snoozing, then catch forty winks myself while the house slowly fills with the comforting smell of soup.

Two notes on chestnuts:

(1) Although they are usually sold unrefrigerated, they do go rancid and mouldy very quickly. As soon as you get them home, store them in the fridge until you need them.

(2) Most cooks recommend cutting a cross in the shell of the nut and boiling, which I have indeed done for many years. However, I have just tried the method described below and it is far more effective and forgiving on the fingers. Done this way, many nuts just pop out of their shell and skin; those that don't are quickly peeled. Even better, popping or peeling from a single cut rather than a cross means no pointy triangles to accidentally shove under your fingernails; thus no shooting pain; thus infinitely superior, indeed! A debt of gratitude to Jerry Traunfeld and his lovely book, The Herbal Kitchen.

Chestnut and Celeriac Soup

- 600g fresh chestnuts in their shells, to make about 400g chestnut meats
- walnut sized lump of butter
- 1 brown onion, chopped
- 2 celeriac, knobbly skin carved off and diced
- 1 celery heart (this is the small inner cluster of a head of celery, rather more yellow than green), sliced finely from the base to the leaves
- 2 bay leaves
- ¼ cup dry sherry
- olive oil and/or double cream
- Parmesan
- a hefty pinch of salt

First, prepare the chestnuts. (I usually do this a night or two ahead, after dinner, and store the chestnut meats in the refrigerator until I am ready to cook them.) Hold a chestnut flat side down on a sturdy chopping board. Place the tip of a sharp knife at the top of the nut, and lever it downwards so that the nut is bisected from top to bottom, but the knife does not cut through the shell on the flat side. (This is far more straightforward than it sounds.) Place the chestnut into a bowl. When all the chestnuts have been treated thus, place the bowl of chestnuts into the freezer for ten minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. When the ten minutes is up, remove the chestnuts from the freezer and slide them into the rapidly boiling water. Boil for eight minutes. Turn off the heat. Remove several chestnuts from the water with a slotted spoon, and quickly pop each nut half out of its shell and skin (or peel it). Continue until you have liberated all the nuts. Work fast, because as the nut cools the skin reattaches itself very firmly.

If one or two chestnuts will not easily relinquish the inner skin, just sacrifice a little chestnut and slice it off rather than send yourself batty trying to peel it. Now the chestnuts are ready, and here you can pause for a day or two to suck your scalded fingers and recover, or, bless your soul, continue.

Warm a good knob of butter in a soup pot. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and sauté over medium heat for several minutes until the onion begins to soften. Add the celeriac and the celery, and stir well. Add the chestnuts and the bay leaf, stir again, and add the sherry. Let it reduce substantially, then barely cover the lot with boiling water. (If you have homemade chicken stock on hand, you can use it here instead of water. Just don't use the fake stuff because then the soup will taste of every other soup which is made with pseudo-stock, viz. metallic and salty; and in any case, it will make your tongue feel thick.) Season.

Allow the soup to simmer until the celeriac is soft, about thirty minutes. Mash roughly with a potato masher, or pulse-chop half the soup in a food processor and return to the pot. This way you get some texture, and some soupy suspension. Taste for salt, undersalting rather than otherwise as the parmesan adds extra salt.

To serve, ladle out a bowlful. Drizzle with some peppery olive oil and/or a spoonful of double cream, and sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan.

(Local: chestnuts, onions, celeriac, bay leaves, olive oil, cream. Not local: butter, celery, sherry, parmesan, salt, pepper.)

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