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Chestnut Soup for the Holidays

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I'll admit it: I'm fickle. Sure, I've been swearing my undying pumpkin love these last few weeks. But sometimes, you reach perfection, and then you can let go and move on.

Walking down 18th Street with a little time to kill last week, I found myself--hey, how did that happen?--strolling right past Bi-Rite Creamery and its adorable soft-serve sidekick. Which just happened to be serving pumpkin soft-serve.

Well, OMG, as the kids say. Utter heaven, even better than the regular pumpkin ice cream at Scoops in Fairfax and Mitchell's in the Mission, my previous two standard-bearers for frozen pumpkin joy. Monday is their designated pumpkin day. Don't miss it!

So now, onto the other joys of autumn. Pomegranates! Red Starkrimson pears! Poached quinces! Shredded Brussels sprouts sauteed with pancetta! And chestnuts, lovely, shiny brown chestnuts.
chestnutsChestnuts, like quinces, take some dedication. These are not easy-munching foods. Quinces, cement-hard and astringently tannic in their raw state, need a long slow simmer in a nicely sugared bath to reveal their true mellow deliciousness. Chestnuts are rock-like and double-wrapped, with a glossy shell outside and a clingy, monkey-furred layer inside. You cannot eat them as is; they must be boiled or roasted to release the shell and soften the nut into delectable, sweet crumbly pastiness. And once cooked, you've got to work fast; getting the nut clear is only possible while it's still warm. You will shred the tops of your thumbs and end up with bits of chestnut meat caked under your nails.


So, by all means, spend the extra dough and buy them already peeled and jarred or vacuum packed at your favorite gourmet store. Me? Well, I'll be roasting and peeling, because can't resist the seasonal beauty of the nuts in their raw and shiny state, found at this time of year at both farmers' markets and in the supermarket. Also, because it just doesn't feel like the holidays without a sacrifice made to the demanding chestnut gods.

And while Thanksgiving at my house demands chestnuts in the stuffing, I do sometimes regret burying all that work in a panful of bready mush.

Last year, housesitting in a gorgeous Victorian complete with formal dining room, I decided to throw an elegant sit-down dinner for 12 for New Year's Eve, a party with complete with champagne and crab hors d'oeuvres in the living room to start, and popovers and chestnut soup as the first course. The inspiration was the Viennese-inspired, velvety-rich chestnut soup served at New York City's Cafe Sabarsky. Kurt Gutenbrunner, the chef at Sabarsky (as well as at its sister restaurants, the elegant Wallse and the bier-und-wurst Blau Gans), takes his soup to an elaborate extreme, making a woodsy mushroom-stock base, dropping in a surprise depth charge of brandy-soaked prunes, and topping the whole with a frothy cloud of steamed milk seasoned with nutmeg and dried porcinis smashed to powder.

But you know, with a multi-course meal, something (or your sanity) has got to give, and so I created a stripped-down version, minus the prunes and porcini, that still managed to capture the essence of a late autumn tramp through the woods.

You can make it several days ahead of time and heat up at the last minute (always useful when entertaining). It's intriguing without being weird, and elegant without being overly rich or madly expensive to make.

In weight and presentation, it's similar to a lobster bisque, but without the whole squirming-crustacean-dying-at-your-hands issue, which, frankly, is just too much to deal with when you're running out at the last minute for more butter, trying to find the guest towels and wondering whether you need to iron the napkins.

Chestnut Soup

Serves: 6, as a first course

25-30 fresh whole chestnuts, or 1 cup peeled chestnuts
3 tbsp butter, divided
2 shallots, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 parsnip, peeled and diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 branch thyme, a bay leaf, and 4 or 5 sprigs of parsley, tied together
4 or 5 sprigs of parsley, minced
1/2 cup dry sherry or Madeira
3 cups chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream or half-and-half
3 tbsp crème fraiche
Freshly grated nutmeg
4 or 5 crimini mushroom caps, sliced, or 6 whole black trumpet mushrooms, halved lengthwise

1. To prepare whole chestnuts, cut a shallow "x" in the rounded side of each chestnut with a sharp knife. Roast at 325F until the meat is tender and the skin dries out and curls back. Peel chestnuts while still warm, otherwise skin will stick to the nut. Discard any discolored or wormy nuts.

2. Melt 2 tbsp butter in a saucepan. Saute shallots, carrot, and parsnip, stirring, until tender but not browned, approximately 5 minutes.

3, Add chestnuts. Sprinkle in a few pinches of salt and maple syrup, and cook, stirring, until chestnuts are golden-spotted and lightly caramelized, 2 to 3 minutes. Add sherry, and cook, stirring, over low heat for another 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Add herbs and chicken broth, and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes, partially covered. Remove herb bundle.

5. Let cool for a few minutes, add cream, then puree in a blender. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or sherry as needed. For extra smoothness, crank through the fine disc of a food mill or pass through a fine-mesh strainer.

6. Melt remaining tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat. Add mushrooms and cook until lightly browned on one side. Using a spatula, turn mushrooms over and brown remaining side. Remove from heat and set aside.

6. Return soup to the pan and warm gently. To serve, top with a spoonful of crème fraiche and a few slices of mushroom. Grate a little fresh nutmeg over crème fraiche.

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