Chestnuts Boasting: Holiday cooking gets a boost of sophisticated flavor

Every December, I look forward to buying a sack of hot roasted chestnuts at WinterMarkt, the outdoor German winter carnival in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. I stuff the nuts into my pockets to keep my hands warm while I browse the artisan booths, pausing to pull out a nut, peel away the smooth, flat shell and savor the kernel, sweet and smoky.

This seasonal nut is also a delight to cook with, especially during the holidays, when we want sophisticated fare but don’t have the time to fuss over it. Once chestnuts are cooked (roasted, toasted or boiled) and shelled they can undergo all sorts of gastronomic expressions – from hearty stews, soups and casseroles to sweet cakes made from chestnut flour, candied treats, even coffee.

There’s no doubt that chestnuts enhance main dishes. A brown rice-chestnut casserole infused with aromatic Indian spices like coriander, cinnamon and cardamom tastes divine; likewise with the mellow-sweet combo of currants, aniseed, celery and shallots. Chestnut-studded yams drizzled with maple syrup or a dash of cinnamon are irresistibly tasty.

Chestnut soup is an elegant start to a sit-down, multicourse holiday meal. Mine is a no-cream version that doesn’t mask the smokiness of the nuts. The addition of butternut and acorn squash, carrots and onion complements the chestnuts; the butternut squash and carrots impart a nice orange shade to the soup, and the mildness of the acorn squash tempers the butternut squash’s would-be overt sweetness. A 50-50 combination of homemade vegetable broth and chicken broth allows the chicken to accent rather than overpower the earthiness of the chestnuts and squash. Once the soup cooks down a bit, I purée most of the liquid, leaving some chunks for texture. The result is an unpretentious, hearty soup packed with subtle flavor.

A garnish for chestnut soup can be as simple as herbed croutons, though my recipe calls for a dressier finish: a spoon of sour cream and a sprinkle of sautéed shiitake mushrooms, sliced chestnuts and prosciutto. The ’shrooms harmonize with the earthy flavor of the chestnuts; the ham adds complexity and texture.

Tempted enough to buy some fresh chestnuts? I’ve been enjoying locally grown chestnuts sold from Blue Heron Orchard located in northeastern Missouri. Sappington Farmers’ Market in Shrewsbury will offer chestnuts imported from Italy or California, according to general manager Ken Byerly.

If you have a chance to select your own, look for plump, firm, heavy nuts. Fresh nuts will keep for two months or more when stored in a thin plastic bag in the refrigerator (For best results, though, they need to be slightly dry – either set out for a few days at room temperature or transfer to a mesh bag in the refrigerator for about one week.) But if you’re like me, your supply won’t last that long anyway.

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … ” WinterMarkt is Dec. 6 this year. I can hardly wait!

Ligaya Figueras is a Central West End-based freelance writer and home cook extraordinaire. A confessed nut-lover, she spends her winter evenings in the kitchen hammer-cracking hickory nuts.