This recipe was inspired by a trip to the market where on display they had a barrel full of Italian chestnuts, le castagne. Chestnuts and hazelnuts are two of the main species of trees that grows in the mountain surrounding my hometown in Italy. In the cold nights of fall and winter, il carretto delle caldarroste, the roasted chestnut cart, was always at the corner of the main walking street. It was one of my favorite stops. When my mother would cook the ballotte, boiled chestnuts, the aroma of the laurel she used in the pot, would permeate the house. I have always loved chestnuts in all their forms: boiled, roasted, marron glacè, marmalade. It wasn’t until I met my mother-in-law that I had my first slice of Monte Bianco. A divine sweet dessert made of chestnuts, chocolate and whipped cream . . . it’s heaven in your mouth! I will save this recipe for another post!
When I moved to the USA I searched for chestnuts everywhere but I had no luck. Only after few years I found them at the Eastern Market in DC. Chestnut in Italy were considered Cucina povera, poor cooking, meaning the ingredients are locals, easy to find in the countryside, or cheap to buy. Not in DC, where back in the 90’ the chestnuts were like diamonds and their cost was absurd. Luckily, things have changed and I can now get my chestnuts relatively easily and at a reasonable price.
Anyway, last week, once I had the chestnuts I need to decide what to do with them, besides taking a pretty picture.
The cold evening inspired me to make a soup, to be precise a Vellutata which is a dense, velvety creamy soup. I decided to incorporate chickpeas to mitigate the sweetness of the chestnuts. You can incorporate mushrooms if you like. If you prefer a lighter consistency you can add more broth.
Vellutata di Castagne e Ceci
1/2 pound Dry chickpeas or 1 pound pre-cooked
1 pound Fresh chestnuts
2 Laurel leaves
1 Stalk of leek well rinsed and thinly sliced
1 Rosemary sprig – save few leaves for presentation
3 tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
1 Shallot – peeled and thinly sliced
Vegetable broth – as needed
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
Crushed red pepper
If using the dry chickpeas you need to soak them in water for 24 hours. After this time, rinse them and cooked them in 5 cups of water for one hour. DO NOT add salt otherwise the chickpeas will become hard. Once they are ready, drain them but save the cooking water.
If using pre-cooked chickpeas, rinse them well before adding them to the recipe. You will also need to add 3-4 cups of vegetable broth to the recipe.
Prep the chestnuts: cut a slit on the side of the chestnuts them let them soak on cold water for 30 minutes. After, rinse them pour them in a pot of cold water. Add the laurel leaves and cook for 40-45 minutes or until tender. Peeled the chestnuts and roughly chopped them. Save few to top your dish. TIP: The prep for the chestnuts should be your husband/companion job!!!
In a large pot, add the extra virgin olive oil, the shallot and the leek. Warm up the oil and sauce on low heat. Add the chestnuts, the chickpeas and the rosary sprig. Stir until they absorb the flavor of the olive oil. Add the water you had reserved from the chickpeas (if using pre-cooked chickpeas, add 3-4 cups of vegetable broth). Finally add the salt, the black pepper, and the crushed red pepper. Cook at medium temperature for 15-20 minutes.
Remove the rosemary sprig and with a slotted spoon transfer ¾ of the chestnuts and chickpeas into a food processor. Process until smooth and silky. If necessary, add some broth. Taste for salt and pepper and add if necessary. Transfer back to the pot and combine. Based on your preferences, you can add more hot vegetable broth. Transfer to a serving bowl. Top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of crushed red pepper, few rosemary leaves, and pieces of the chestnut you had reserved. To add a little tang, I like to add a doloop of crême fraiche.
Serve with toasted bread.
My dinner also included a side of roasted purple cauliflower and romanesco. I simply cut them into florets, toss them in extra virgin olive oil, salt and red hot chrushed pepper, and sliced leek. I roast them at 450 degree for 30-40 minutes turning them once half way trough. In the last five minutes, I add grated pecorino cheese and pine nuts.
My Vellutata was very abundant, so the next day, I added some broth and cooked Mafalde pasta . . . buonissimo! Fresh tagliatelle would be perfect too!