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Cooking Off the Cuff: Chestnuts - But Not Old Chestnuts

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Last weekend, when Jackie and I got back from three weeks abroad, I expected our Saturday farmers' market to look like an autumn harvest festival. And it did, to some degree: There were the expected piles of pumpkins and other winter squashes; dozens of kinds of apples; quinces; root vegetables; sturdy greens. But alongside these, summer holdouts abounded: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, even day-neutral varieties of strawberry. It was like an August market plus the makings of a Thanksgiving dinner.

Along those lines, a few vendors had chestnuts - not in any great quantity, but because they'd been gathered only days or hours before sale they had a quality lacking in most of the imported ones we see in the supermarket: freshness. We bought a basket of them from the Violet Hill Farm stand: theirs were mostly of a good size (some of our north-eastern chestnuts are tiny and hence even more of a nuisance to prepare).

Among the more common associates for chestnuts are brussels sprouts or other cabbages, often enhanced with bacon. That's a delicious combination, but I'd been thinking about something we kept finding on our plates in Holland and England during our trip: cooked Belgian endive and, its close relative, radicchio, specifically the elongated variety known as treviso . Although it has been bred out of some varieties, these traditionally have a bitterness that I find most appealing and that I thought might make an interesting counterpoint to the slightly farinaceous sweetness and nuttiness of the chestnuts. And one of the Union Square Greenmarket vendors -- forgive me; I don't remember who -- had generous, properly bitter heads of treviso.

The first job was to prepare the chestnuts, and I did it the day before I was planning to cook the dish. Unlike shelling peas, this is no fun, but I've worked out a system that is effective and doesn't leave me with broken nails and painful fingertips. Using a sturdy paring knife I deeply score ten or a dozen chestnuts (cutting an X into the flat side, right through the tough shell), then put them into a covered microwave tortilla-warmer. I used to use a pyrex pie plate covered with plastic wrap, but this seems to work better. A minute or 70 seconds in the microwave oven makes it possible (wearing latex gloves -- the key to intact fingertips) to peel back the outer and inner shells of each hot chestnut easily: when they cool, the inner skin is very difficult to remove, which is why I nuke only a few at a time. The total yield was around two cups of peeled chestnuts.

When I was ready to cook, I removed a dozen leaves from the big head of treviso, washed and drained them and cut them on the bias into roughly quarter-inch slices. (I could have used a whole head of belgian endive, or the whole of a smaller head of treviso.) I sliced enough shallots to yield a cup of slices and put these into a pan to sweat over low heat with a tablespoon of butter and some salt and pepper.

After five or six minutes I added the two cups of chestnuts, some more salt and pepper and 1/4 cup of vegetable stock -- chicken stock would have been very good here too. And, between us, the dish would be fine with plain water. I covered the pan and let the chestnuts and shallots stew, still over low heat, for the better part of 15 minutes, adding more vegetable stock from time to time, for a total of just over half a cup.

Now I added the sliced treviso, a few grains of sugar and a little more stock; after five minutes it had melted to a shadow of its original volume -- but retaining its flavor. I finished the dish by stirring in a mere teaspoon of butter to give some consistency to the small quantity of oniony pan juices.

It was delicious. Mind you, the chestnuts themselves were a particular treat -- freshly gathered, not shipped half way around the world in a burlap bag, they had a special softness and sweetness and aroma. But the shallots enhanced those qualities (I could have used even more than I did, and probably will next time), and the treviso did exactly what I'd hoped it would: it added a textural lightness, and its bitterness complemented the other flavors. Plus, those juices were a special treat. Serve this with chicken, veal or pork -- or by itself as a first course.

Once you start by cooking lots of shallots (or onions) with chestnuts, you can move this dish in other directions too. Regular mushrooms would be a good and very different alternative to radicchio; chanterelles would be line-up-around-the-block terrific. And, of course, nothing is stopping you from reverting to that old standby, brussels sprouts.

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