A thick slice of Italian bread topped with a slab of salty Pecorino Romano cheese and a healthy dollop of roasted chestnuts in spiced honey. That sounds like a pretty darn good way to start a holiday party or any party for that matter. I give you two recipes in this post – one features chestnuts in spiced honey and the other is a pear and ginger compote – both are delectable and are great additions to your cheese board.
In Southern Italy, chestnuts (castagne) are an important part of the cuisine and are often found roasting over a fire or stove for use in myriad soups, pastas, salads, and antipasti.
This year, in my house, chestnuts are doing anything but roasting by an open fire.
I have to admit that the chestnut roasting business has always been a mystery to me. I love the song about chestnuts roasting over an open fire (my favorite holiday song), and I know these winter nuts can enhance stuffing at Thanksgiving. But I figured chestnuts were too challenging and would probably remain outside my wheelhouse. Famous last words.
When I was in Volturara, Irpinia, (Southern Italy) I attended a festival that centered around the Quarantino Fagioli, the bean that miraculously reaches maturity in an unheard of 40 days. One of the traditional dishes was a hearty soup with beans and chestnuts in a chunky broth poured over stale peasant bread. I fell in love with this soup, and oh those chestnuts! They were so meaty and tender – a perfect meat substitute and so delicious. Maybe it was time to face my chestnut fear.
I set out on a mission. I talked to Italian cooks and tried to understand the directions in Italian. Besides highlighting my horrendous Italian skills, I came to realize that these are skills that are passed down for generations and it would take time to learn.
Nevertheless, I persisted. When I returned home to the states, I conducted more chestnut research. It was chestnut season, so they were abundant in the supermarkets. The fact that they were $11 per pound did not deter me; I was driven. After several not-so-successful attempts, I began to grasp the art of roasting chestnuts.
Below are two recipes adapted from La Cucina Italiana magazine. Chestnuts in Spiced Honey and Pear-Ginger Compote. These two sweet and savory sauces that are a yummy addition to any cheese board.
Castagne al miele aromatico - Chestnuts in spiced honey
This lovely condiment pairs with hard cheeses like Pecorino Romano.
– 1/2 cup sugar
– 1/2 cup water
– 15 chestnuts
– 1 (3 inch) strip orange zest
– 2 Tablespoons honey
– 1/4 tsp vanilla
To prepare chestnuts: Preheat oven to 425. Using a sharp knife, cut an x through the skin of each chestnut. This will allow the chestnut to heat through and will let out the air as it cooks. Place chestnuts on a cookie sheet (cut side up) and bake for 10 minutes. Don’t cook any longer than 10 minutes because the chestnuts will get too hard and dry. Remove from oven and wrap the hot chestnuts in a kitchen towel and twist the towel around the nuts. Gently press on the nuts to break them up a bit while they steam in the towel. This will make a nice crunching sound. Once the chestnuts are cool enough to touch, remove from the towel and peel, discarding the skins.
2. In a saucepan combine the sugar and water and bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar. Add the chestnuts and zest, and simmer gently uncovered for 15 minutes.
3. Remove and discard the zest. Put the chestnuts and 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid in a blender or food processor. Blend slightly until the chestnuts break up a bit, but mixture is still chunky. (you can discard the rest of the cooking water.)
4. In a bowl combine the chestnut mixture, honey, vanilla and a pinch of salt.
5. Best eaten right away, but this dish can be kept, covered, at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Here is something additional for your cheese board!
– 1/2 cup Moscato or dessert wine
– 1/2 cup water
– 1 Tablespoon sugar
– 1 (2/3 inch) piece of ginger, peeled and cut into fine julienne strips
– 1 Bartlett pear, peeled and cored, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
– 1 small Jonagold apple (or any sweet, crisp apple such as Fuji, Braeburn or Gala), peeled and cored, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
– 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
– a pinch of salt
1. In a heavy saucepan bring wine, water, sugar and ginger to a simmer and heat until sugar dissolved.
2. Mix in fruit, lemon juice and pinch of salt. Cover and simmer stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes or until fruit is tender.
3. Uncover and continue to simmer until the liquid is mostly evaporated, about 8 – 10 minutes more. Using a wooden spoon, mash gently. Cool completely before serving.
4. This compote keeps for 1 month, chilled and covered.