For years I've been a bit put off by chestnuts - when I was a kid and Dad roasted them in the fire at Christmas time, I always thought they smelled weirdly of methylated spirits. (Maybe Dad just wasn't telling us something about how he got the fire going...) But yet, Mum makes a wicked chestnut stuffing every Christmas, while my mother-in-law serves them roasted with sprouts and shallots - lovely. And they add a gorgeous richness to cakes and desserts too - the chestnut chocolate torte we sampled last Wild Food Night was awesome. Chestnuts are a huge British winter tradition, and quite rightly so - they're indigenous, freely and widely available, tasty, and their high starch content (twice that of potatoes!) makes them massively versatile - in fact, (though they taste great in themselves) they'll happily soak up other flavours and you can use them in many ways you'd use potatoes; adding them to stews and soups, using them as a flour, as a puree, as a side dish... They're low fat and high fibre, and full of complex carbs and high quality proteins, with as much vitamin C as lemons by weight, and lots of vitamins E and B6, thiamin, potassium, folate and magnesium. So I've made it my aim - nay, my duty - this year, to use them in my own cooking...
Sadly, my attempts at foraging for chestnuts have so far all failed - it turns out they drop around here much earlier than all the books say - so all the chestnuts you'll be seeing here are bought from markets or supermarkets (probably ready-roasted and vacuum-packed). But it's not going to stop me making the best of this great British ingredient.
The first thing that sprang to mind, especially when I was given a large patty-pan-type squash last week and asked to do something fun with it, was Monica Shaw's mouthwatering picture of chestnut pasta ravioli which I'd seen on Twitter a few weeks back, and she kindly linked me to the chestnut pasta recipe here and the pumpkin ravioli recipe here. Granted, I've never tried my hand at any kind of pasta before, but I'm not one to be put off by mere cluelessness...
Actually, I've made this twice in the last few days. The first attempt, while perfectly edible, was not really what I aspired to...
...but I learnt a lot of lessons from the process:
Lesson No. 1: Chestnut flour (required for the pasta dough) is not widely available. I've checked all my local supermarkets and health food shops and there's none of this stuff in the whole city. But a couple of websites said I could make my own by milling roasted chestnuts, so that's what I did. It's moister than flour should be (though it could - and probably should - be dried out in a low oven or dehydrator) and gives a more wholemealy look and texture. (Lesson No. 1a: Use less egg in the dough to make up for this extra moisture!)
Lesson No. 2: Lock the cat out when chestnuts are around. From the moment I opened the packet he was miaowing round my feet and trying to get on the table. I couldn't understand it - you'd have thought we were making some kind of sushi-meets-catnip treat! Then he dived in the bin, dragged the chestnut packet out and started licking the crumbs out like a mad thing! Bad kitty! He doesn't normally go for non-meat/dairy foods - I wonder what on earth it is about chestnuts he likes so much! Does anyone else's cat go crazy for them?
Lesson No. 3: Rest the dough half an hour before rolling out. I realised we'd forgotten to do this the first time, and when I did it the second time it made the whole process much easier.
Lesson No. 4: The pasta must be THIN. Reeeeally thin. Like, nearly-see-through thin. Resting helps this, as the dough is much more willing to stretch, but it's a rather sticky dough and too often it stuck to the table or fell apart as I tried to roll it out as thin as I possibly could! It paid off in the end; my first batch of ravioli were way too thick, tricky to fill well, took ages to cook, and the pasta/filling ratio was all wrong. The second batch were much more delicate and allowed for more filling. Of course, none of this would have been an issue if I had a pasta machine...
Lesson No. 5: Patty-pan squash isn't the ideal squash for a recipe like this. Its flavour is very mild and sadly just got a bit lost. Pumpkin, butternut or onion squash are more robust flavourwise and far more suitable. (The other half of that patty-pan will go great in a stew or a curry later this week.)
I experimented a bit with fillings too on the first attempt, and made spiced squash (good, but could have done without the cream which diluted the flavour), squash with rosemary, cheese and tomato (good, but could have done with more cheese), squash with chopped chestnuts (good, but ground or pureed chestnuts would have been better), squash with truffle oil (good, but it's punchy stuff and I made it a touch too strong!) and mushroom, with shallot, fresh parsley and a splash of brandy (delicious! must make again!). The second time I kept it simple and used just roasted pumpkin with a knob of butter, seasoning and a touch of sage and nutmeg.
Here's my second attempt at ravioli:
Not too bad, huh? I suspect the pasta could still be thinner, but I'm pretty pleased. The chestnut adds a rich new dimension to the pasta, the pumpkin is fragrant and delicious, and the crispy shallot and sage butter topping (from the recipe above) is the perfect accompaniment (I replaced the pine nut garnish in the recipe with toasted almonds to keep in the spirit of all things local and homegrown).
I think, though, that my next chestnut recipe will have to be something a bit more simple. Ravioli takes aaaages!
EDIT: See Carl Legge's lovely chestnut pasta post and recipe here too!