If I were to give to each season its own smell, fall would get the smell of chestnuts. Not only the better-known smell of roasted chestnuts (called caldarroste in Italian), but also that of boiled chestnuts. A big case of freshly picked chestnuts was one of the items my parents would get during our fall visit to their native area (usually around All Saints' Day). For several weeks afterwards, we would eat roasted or boiled chestnuts, alternately, at the end of our dinner. Coming home at the end of the day, the smell that greeted me on opening the front door told me what to expect. In terms of smell, roasted chestnuts are unbeatable, but I have a soft spot for the gustatory experience provided by boiled chestnuts. (See "Table Talk," Dec. 1, 2005 on roasted chestnuts from MacIntosh Family Farm.)
My mother never used chestnuts as an ingredient, so, of course, in my kitchen I had to do it. The inspiration came from a conversation with an Italian cousin who mentioned a dish made with mushrooms, chickpeas and chestnuts, flavored with rosemary. I liked the combination and immediately started working out the details according to my taste, beginning with the substitution of chickpeas with beans, winners of an early test.
I am still experimenting and learning the task of prepping dried beans for use in a dish and have been heeding Deborah Madison's advice from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. After soaking half a cup of the beans for several hours or overnight in enough water to cover them by about an inch (I use two cups), empty the whole bowl into a saucepan and add half of a small onion (halved), a bay leaf, a small clove of garlic (sliced) and a couple of sprigs of fresh parsley. Bring the water to a lively boil quickly, and keep it there for five minutes, then turn down the heat and let the beans simmer, covered, until they are tender, but not completely cooked. How long this takes depends on the type of beans (your choice) and their freshness. Let them cool in their broth, then remove the aromatics and discard them. My current favorite bean for this recipe is the canario, grown locally at Warren Creek Farms. (See "Table Talk," Nov. 15, 2007).
Put half a pound of fresh chestnuts in a saucepan, cover them abundantly with water and add a bay leaf. Bring the water to a boil and simmer until the chestnuts are cooked, about 45 minutes. (Try one after 40 minutes to gauge the remaining time.) Let the water cool briefly, then take the chestnuts out one at a time. Use a sharp knife with a pointed blade to remove the shell, then the skin. This is actually a fairly easy operation; the most difficult part is refraining from diverting the peeled chestnut into your mouth. The best strategy to address the danger of depletion is to boil more chestnuts than called for by the recipe. Place the peeled chestnuts in a bowl and set aside. If they break in half while being handled, it is fine, as they will be chopped later anyway.
Once you have beans and chestnuts ready, the rest of the recipe takes about half an hour. I usually start making polenta, my favorite accompaniment for the dish, slightly ahead, so that, by the time the polenta is ready, 45 minutes later, the dish is also ready. I wrote about how I cook polenta in my first contribution to the Journal ("Table Talk," March 1, 2007). Here I will add that in this instance I like to enrich the polenta with freshly-grated Gruyère.
The final act: Generously spray a sauté pan with olive oil and warm it up, then add a large onion (about 3/4 lb), chopped, three cloves of garlic, minced, and two tablespoons of chopped fresh rosemary (possibly coming from your own bush). Cook the onion gently for 12-15 minutes, until it is soft and translucent. Then turn up the heat slightly and add a pound of fresh mushrooms, cleaned and sliced. I use white mushrooms, sometimes enlivened by other varieties. I wish I knew enough about wild mushrooms to be able to pick some to add to the mix. As a child, I used to follow my parents and my aunt Lucia in mushroom gathering, an activity that still fascinates me. A visit to the recent Mushroom Fair in Eureka made it clear that I have a lot to learn. I can still hope to meet someone knowledgeable that would bring me along.
Back to the kitchen. Cook the mushrooms for 10 minutes. Add the drained beans and a quarter cup of their broth, cover, and continue cooking for five minutes. Roughly chop the chestnuts (cut each one into 4-5 pieces) and add them to the pan. Simmer for five minutes, uncovered, until the chestnuts are warm. Sprinkle salt to taste, and a small amount of freshly-ground black pepper. Give a last stir and serve hot, together with the creamy polenta (of which you hopefully have not lost track) or what-you-like.
The leftover corner: One day that I was preparing pizza, I decided to spread some leftovers of my dish over the pizza dough. I baked the pizza until two minutes shy of being ready, took it out of the oven and sprinkled some grated Gruyère over the topping, then completed the baking. The result of the experiment obtained an excellent rating: I wonder why it took me so long to try it.
Funghi, fagioli e castagne (mushrooms, beans and chestnuts)
Ingredients for the beans:
1/2 cup dried beans
1/2 small onion
2 sprigs of fresh parsley
Clove of garlic, sliced
1/2 lb fresh chestnuts
1 large onion, chopped (about 3/4 lb)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
1 lb mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Soak beans in cold water several hours or overnight.
Place beans and water in a saucepan, add onion, garlic and herbs, bring to a full boil for five minutes, simmer, covered, until beans are tender, but not completely cooked.
Remove and discard aromatics.
Simmer chestnuts and bay leaf 40-45 minutes, then cool, peel and chop coarsely.
Cook onion, garlic and rosemary gently for 12-15 minutes.
When onion is translucent, turn up heat and add mushrooms. Cook for 10 minutes.
Add drained beans and 1/4 cup of their broth, cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes.
Add chestnuts and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes more.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper, mix and serve hot.