Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Chestnut and Lentil Soup


I recently had a piece published about the act of peeling chestnuts which came out, ironically, just as I missed the annual chestnut harvest day at a friend's property in Gembrook. Thanks be, other friends made it and came back with an extra bag they had collected just for me.

I'm sorry to have missed the harvest, but I must admit I'm also a little relieved. Collecting chestnuts is not unmitigated fun. They drop from the tree in prickly bundles, which you must roll with a sturdy boot to open up and then, with gardening gloves, you fish the nuts out. Spines slip through the weak points in your gloves, leading to much sucking of fingers. One child or another always manages to fall in the chestnut grove and land knees first on the prickles and, cold hearted mother that I am, I find the annual screams a little tedious.

Meanwhile, there are so many chestnuts lying around that I find it difficult to collect only what I can reasonably cook. Some years I come back with a long labour of peeling chestnuts ahead of me, too many to be enjoyable.

But this year, thanks to my friends, I have a couple of kilos, just enough to eat this week. No little kids have had to shout about the prickles in their knees, and my fingers are unscathed. Next year, my kids will be older, my gloves will be thicker, and we will go again.

Chestnut and lentil soup is one of our favourites. The sweetness of the chestnuts is beautifully balanced by the earthiness of the lentils; the result is simple, nourishing and deeply satisfying. I like to keep the elements separate, so that one experiences little explosions of sweet chestnut; but it is also good as a purée, if rather unfortunate in appearance.

Chestnut and Lentil Soup

- 1 kg chestnuts in their shells
- 1 cup brown lentils
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 1 brown onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 2 medium sized carrots, chopped small
- 2 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock, or water
- 1 cup extra water
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp salt
- 4 or 5 stalks parsley
- extra virgin olive oil to finish

Prepare the chestnuts. To do this, using a small sharp knife cut a cross in the rounded side of each chestnut. Drop the chestnuts into a pan of boiling water. Simmer for fifteen minutes, then turn off the heat. Remove the chestnuts from the water a few at a time, and peel them. Do not let them cool down too much, as in cooling the skin adheres to the nut. Discard any hard or discoloured bits as these will be bitter. Chop roughly.

Soak the lentils in hot water for ten minutes.

Warm the olive oil, then add the onion. Cook over medium heat for ten minutes, but do not let it brown. Add the garlic and celery, and cook for another minute. Add the carrot, and cook for a few more minutes or until the vegetables look shiny.

Drain the lentils and add them to the pan. Add the stock or water, plus an extra cup of water, the bay leaf and the chestnuts. Cook for 15 minutes with the lid on.

Test a lentil. If it is soft, salt and turn down the heat; if it is still hard, give it a few more minutes before salting. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes then turn off the heat. Let it sit for an hour or so for the flavours to meld. You may need to add a little more boiling water to get the consistency you like. (I like it very thick, more stew than soup.)

Remove the bay leaf. Chop the parsley and throw that in. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

(Backyard / gleaned: bay leaves, parsley. Gembrook: chestnuts. Wimmera: lentils, olive oil, salt. Other bits of Victoria: onion, celery, carrot. Mixed sources: homemade stock. Can't remember but it might have been Colac: garlic.)

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