As things currently stand, chestnuts are almost as ephemeral as poinsettias. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, they're everywhere; then boom, adios until next turkey time. There are a number of reasons for this, primary among them the fact that the fresh nuts are harvested only once a year. They are also expensive. And they're a hassle: You've got to peel a lot to get much food, and you've got to peel them while they're hot or the skins will stick.
Dried chestnuts, on the other hand, are a delight all year. They come already peeled, they're easy on the budget and they're very easy to eat. Though they lack the almost fluffy texture of the fresh article, they do retain the same sweetness and classic, addictive, smoky chestnut flavor.
In fact, dried chestnuts might best be seen as a sort of very high-class dried bean, just as wild rice is considered a fancier version of rice. The two aren't botanically related, but their uses at the table are parallel, and chestnuts, like beans, are high in protein and low in fat.
Chestnuts are sweeter than beans, and this must be allowed for, but they do beautifully for many classic bean purposes, such as teamed with rice. I wouldn't try to make chili with them, but they do make dandy burritos; just boil with an onion, mash in a bit of oil or bacon fat, and serve in tortillas with lots of shredded lettuce, onions, cheese, hot peppers and other fixings of choice.
Chestnuts go well with members of the cabbage family and taste good in beef stew. Try them as a garnish for baked squash, or marinate them in vinaigrette and sprinkle on the salad. There's no reason for chestnuts to vanish up the chimney with Santa; in the dried version they are, or should be, a staple that knows no season.
The hardest part is finding them, since they are not generally a supermarket item. I get mine at the local co-op; other likely sources are health-food stores and groceries that deal in Italian or Mediterranean foods. Once purchased, dried chestnuts must be picked over before use, since even the finest quality will include three or four wormy ones per pound. Generally, when a recipe calls for half a pound of walnuts, buy a generous half-pound.
While it is not absolutely essential to soak them, an eight- to 24-hour bath in cool water to cover will help them cook more evenly. It will also loosen those last little bits of skin, which can be easily removed with a wood pick. (Do not soak longer than 24 hours or they will start to ferment.) Use the soaking water as part of the cooking liquid, but otherwise proceed as you would with dried beans.
The fresh, very slightly bitter taste of the celery balances the smoky sweetness of the chestnuts, and celery's crispness makes a fine contrast to the otherwise smooth puree. Though this tastes as rich as a classic cream soup, it's actually very low in fat. Just pleasantly filling, it's ideal for a winter lunch or as the main dish of a winter dinner that also includes a substantial salad and a loaf of crusty garlic bread.
1/2 pound dried chestnuts
3 cups chicken broth
1 heaping tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cups sliced (scant 1/4-inch thick) celery
2 or 3 tablespoons minced celery leaves
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions, including about 1 inch green part
1 cup low-fat milk
1/4 cup minced parsley or fennel
4 lemon wedges
Pick over chestnuts. Place in deep bowl and cover generously with cold water. Soak 8 to 24 hours. Remove clinging skins with wood pick.
Transfer chestnuts to heavy saucepan. Add 2 cups soaking water and chicken broth. Bring liquid to boil. Cover pan and simmer until chestnuts are very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
Remove chestnuts with slotted spoon and puree in blender or processor, adding just enough cooking liquid to keep grinder from sticking. Keep liquid hot.
Melt butter in clean pan over medium-high heat until sizzling and beginning to brown. Add celery, celery leaves and green onions. Raise heat to high and cook, stirring, until vegetables are just translucent and starting to brown.
Reduce heat to low. Add chestnut puree and stir well. Slowly stir in broth. Add enough milk to achieve good smooth consistency. Heat to desired temperature. Season to taste with salt.
Transfer soup to heated bowls. Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once, accompanied by lemon wedges. Makes 4 servings.
Marrons Glacees, the huge, soft, sugar-glazed chestnuts imported from France, are one of the world's loveliest candies. Unfortunately, they are also one of the world's most expensive--last time I looked, they were running about two bucks apiece--and they cannot be made at home. The bonbons below, however, deliver a similar satisfaction at a fraction of the cost, and they are very easy to prepare. They make a lovely New Years' Eve present, especially when presented in pretty foil or printed paper cases. This recipe can easily be doubled.
1/4 pound dried chestnuts, about 1/2 cup