People who know me would tell you that it's hard to tell which I like more: gardening or cooking. I'd say it depends on which I'm doing at the moment. Anyway, French cooking and French gardening go hand in hand. For me, cooking is an on-going adventure. Join me here on my culinary explorations, where I share with you both my old favorites as well as new inspirations. It's my fondest wish that these recipes serve as a springboard for your own new creations.
11/13/2007 Chestnut-fennel purée (Purée de châtaignes au fenouil)
3 lbs. fresh chestnuts 2 medium heads fennel, bruised and tough parts removed, sliced in sixths 1 tsp. fennel seed (wild fennel seed if possible)* 4 T. unsalted butter 1/2 c. crème fraîche Salt and pepper
*Wild fennel seeds are smaller than the usual variety, nearly black in color, and incredibly flavorful.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cut a slit across the rounded side of each chestnut and place them on a baking sheet. Roast for 20-30 minutes, until peelable (they don't have to be perfectly tender.) Cover the chestnuts with a towel to keep them hot while you peel them. If they cool, the inner skin won't come off. (If the skin refuses to come off a few of them, don't throw them out. You'll be able to remove it after the next step.)*
Place the peeled chestnuts and the fennel and fennel seeds in a heavy saucepan and just cover them with water. Add a good pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium low and simmer until the chestnuts and the fennel are very tender. Keep the pot covered to conserve the cooking liquid.
Drain the chestnuts and fennel over a bowl, reserving the cooking liquid. Remove any skin that is still clinging to the chestnuts or has come loose among the vegetables.Pass the vegetables through the fine blade of a food mill back into the saucepan. Add the butter and crème fraîche and whisk until incorporated. Then whisk in enough of the flavorful cooking liquid to make the mixture nearly pourable, or to a consistency that pleases you.** Note that the purée will thicken as it stands, so don't throw out any remaining cooking liquid until serving time. Correct the seasoning with flakes of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
*The technique of roasting the chestnuts before peeling, and then boiling them with the fennel allows you to develop the delicious cooking liquor essential to the flavor of this dish. Boiling the chestnuts in their shells and then peeling makes peeling more difficult in my experience. Reboiling them after peeling gives a less flavorful result. And you can't use the liquid from boiling them in their shells because it has an acrid taste.
**You can reduce the amount of butter and cream if you desire by increasing the amount of cooking liquid you incorporate into the purée. The result will be less unctuous but still flavorful.
Note: This is the most delicous puree I've ever tasted. It's worth the effort, and unfortunately using vacuum-packed chestnuts seriously diminishes the result. A guaranteed star of the Thanksgiving table. You probably won't have leftovers, but if you do, thin them with homemade chicken broth for a fabulous soup.