One of the most basic and nourishing meals is soup. It can be dressed up as an entree course in a restaurant, be a refined, sophisticated dish, or served as a rough-and-ready staple. At home it is dinner, served from the pot at the table with toast and a pat of butter.
Soup, though, can sometimes go bad. I usually avoid the soup du jour in a restaurant, or most things du jour for that matter. As wonderful as a well-thought-out soup can be, a thrown-together “boil-up” can sometimes be as bad as food gets.
Chestnuts are not a staple soup item but work beautifully and are best eaten now, while still in season.
At the restaurant, we often poach peeled chestnuts in milk with a bay leaf for half an hour until tender. We reserve them in the milk and use them for many different dishes. Usually we roughly chop them, sauté in butter and toss through roasted brussels sprouts, or we serve gently sautéed whole chestnuts alongside game or roast white meats. The earthy notes and very subtle sweetness found in chestnuts make them a perfect pairing for game.
In the sweet world, chestnuts are key to the epic and ever-so-romantic Mont Blanc, a famous dessert taking its name from the mountain range in the French Alps. To make Mont Blanc, chestnuts are poached in milk along with sugar and a vanilla bean. Once cooked, the chestnuts are pureed and thinned out with a little of the poaching liquid and placed in a piping bag with a fine nozzle. In my own version, we served a small piece of almond meringue cake topped with whipped cream over which the chestnut puree is extruded and then topped with more whipped cream and a little grated chocolate. Voilà.
Chestnut varieties abound and one of my favourites is the Spanish red, for their flavour but also because as a large chestnut they seem easier to peel than other varieties.
Which brings me to peeling. Fact: there is no easy way or short cut to peel a chestnut. The outer leathery skin is easily removed with a small paring knife. Below this outer skin, a thin brown membrane remains, covering the entire nut. It is this membrane that requires special attention. I find the best way to remove it is to blanch the nut in simmering salted water for 30 seconds. Remove the chestnut from the pot with a slotted spoon, take a dry cloth and pinch the membrane. Hopefully it will slip straight off. If not, return to the boiling water and try again. Remove as much as you can with the cloth before taking to it with a paring knife to remove any remains. As you are wrangling your chestnut, place another in the pan of water and repeat the process. Practice does help and there is more help in the form of peeled, raw, frozen chestnuts on the market, from stockists listed at www.cheznuts.com.au.
Chestnut, celeriac and cabbage soup
– 300g raw chestnuts, peeled and roughly chopped
– 600g celeriac, in 1cm dice
– ½ small savoy cabbage, thick stem removed and shredded
finely to produce about 400g
– 4 tbsp olive oil
– 150g pancetta, small dice
– 2 bay leaves
– 1 onion, small dice
– 1.5 litres chicken stock
– 150g grated parmesan
– ½ bunch parsley chopped fine
– 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the pancetta and onion and cook for five to 10 minutes until the onion is translucent and aromatic.
Add the stock, bay leaves and chestnuts, bring to the simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Now add the celeriac and cabbage. Simmer gently for half an hour until the celeriac is soft and the chestnuts just cooked. Season with salt and white pepper and add the chopped parsley just before serving.
Ladle into each bowl and top with one tablespoon of grated parmesan and drizzle one teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil into each bowl.
This soup is delicious with the addition of the briny mussel juice. For vegetarians, it’s just as good without the mussels.
– 1kg mussels (optional)
– 1 onion, sliced
– 1 tbsp olive oil
– 1 tbsp butter
– 3 cloves garlic, sliced
– 1 tsp ground turmeric
– 2 hot red scud chilli, sliced
– 2cm piece ginger, finely chopped
– 500g tomatoes, peeled and diced (canned is fine)
– 500g pumpkin, in 1cm dice
– 1 litre vegetable stock
– cooking liquid from mussels
– 6 kaffir lime leaves
– 10 curry leaves
– 2cm piece ginger
– 2cm galangal
– 1 tbsp palm sugar
– ½ tsp garam marsala
– 500ml coconut milk
Add the cleaned mussels to a large saucepan with a splash of water and cook covered until the mussels just open. Remove from the heat and cool. Reserve the cooking liquid and place the opened mussels in the fridge until ready to use.
Meanwhile, warm the butter and oil in a stainless steel saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chilli and cook gently until golden and aromatic. Add the turmeric, tomatoes, pumpkin, mussel juice and vegetable stock. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft.
Puree in an upright blender and return to the saucepan and bring to the simmer along with all of the aromatic ingredients and coconut milk. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Leave to cool and strain through a fine sieve before serving. Ladle the hot broth into each bowl, then evenly divide the mussels.
For the chestnut soup:
2013 Save Our Souls sangiovese, King Valley, Victoria ($27)
For the curry soup:
2012 Jamsheed Garden Gully riesling, Great Western,
– Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 19, 2014 as "Pot boilers". Subscribe here.