Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Devil's Own

This year marked my first Thanksgiving without my family. I celebrated instead with good friends and many bottles of wine. Well, I guess the wine remained a constant, even if the company did not. I was very excited about the meal I would prepare and was looking forward to it for days. Everything was in its place in my head, everything was planned and made perfect sense. Not surprisingly, that didn’t last long. Some things didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped, some things didn’t turn out at all, but in the end all was well. The evening was great fun, due in no small part to the fact that Lisa (savior) had prepared half the dinner.

Now, for my part of the meal – the part I am not too embarrassed to discuss, that is.

I was making a butternut squash and apple soup* that was to be garnished with roasted chestnuts after being pushed through a fine mesh sieve - exhausting but worth it. The chestnuts were a new experience for me. I think I have had them just once before – they are not a part of my everyday eating vocabulary. To me, they seem to be a cross between a nut and a potato - slightly mealy, a little nutty, definitely starchy. Very much unlike anything else I have had. I had to learn as I went along.

And this is what I learned that fateful Wednesday before Thanksgiving: chestnuts are the devil’s instrument. Our prison system can be completely revamped by making convicts peel chestnuts instead of doing time. It is a punishment far more horrible and one sure to warn off a relapse of criminal activity. Kids should never be grounded – they should just be forced to peel a pound of chestnuts. They will be guaranteed never to stay out too late or get bad grades again. Brilliant plan, isn’t it! So yeah, I peeled a few chestnuts this Thanksgiving.

I could have bought the chestnuts peeled and ready. But no, I wanted to do things the right (read: hard) way, starting with actual chestnuts. Everything I read about preparing chestnuts made it sound rather easy, nothing too sinister. Score the shell before roasting in the oven and peel the nuts while still warm. Ok. But then came the problem – the stupid shell and underlying tough skin just. would. not. come. off. It was horrible. After getting a couple of cuts on my fingers, running out of curse words, and opening a beer, I tried blanching the nuts in hopes of loosening the shell and skin.

This is when I figured out that when they said “peel while still warm,” they actually meant “while burning, searing, boiling hot straight out of the water.” That was the only way I could get the chestnut skin off. If I allowed the chestnuts to sit for even 10 seconds after coming out of the boiling water, the skin would toughen up again. It was truly awful. I am now completely traumatized and am dead set against all things chestnut. It’s like when you are bitten by a dog when you are little and have an aversion and fear of dogs for the rest of your life, except with chestnuts. To give credit where credit is due, at least half of my suffering was worth it – the cornbread, sausage, and chestnut stuffing that Lisa made was ridiculously good, and the smoothness of the soup I made was nicely offset by the meaty chestnut pieces.

To wrap up, please learn from my mistakes – buy the ready chestnuts. There is no glory to be gained by doing it yourself. All that said (or recalled with a shudder, as it were) I had a wonderful Thanksgiving, with friends, tons of food, and completely unfitting conversation for the dinner table. It was great. So great, in fact, that I completely neglected to take pictures of what we were eating! That's too bad.

*Note : I prepared the soup as in the recipe except that I used an actual butternut squash instead of the jarred nonsense - why go the easy route? It actually worked out really well - I roasted a butternut squash at 450 till it was caramelized and soft (~45 minutes), choped the flesh and added 4 cups to the soup. Better than jarred, I think. Pushing the soup through a fine mesh sieve after blending it seems like yet another form of torture but it was totally worth it for a special occasion - I have never made a soup that smooth. This is not a technique to bust out on a regular Wednesday night.


JC said...

I'm glad you had a great Thanksgiving!

I don't think I've ever had chestnuts, but I would like to try them. Pre-peeled of course!

I had a little bit of a similar experience. We saw a pecan tree in NC and I picked up a bunch of pecans to eat. Not possessing a nutcracker, I had to open them by hand. Except for the last one which I opened using the power window in my parents' rental car.

Anna said...

Ha! That's really funny. And inventive.

atp said...

You know, you've got me thinking...we always* used to have roasted chestnuts as children, but I don't remember any ordeal with getting the shells off. Hmm. Perhaps it was so horrific that I have erased it from my memory? I really have no idea. I expect it's more than likely I just put them in my mouth and chewed away until I got into the flesh...I don't suppose that would be appropriate when other people were to eat them.

*That's right; always. Yes.

Ben said...

I am a big fan of eating big ole' nuts. (Did I just type that?) The only soup I have had nuts in (tee hee) is this peanut/ginger soup my folks make in their slow cooker. I know you had a post about peanuts a while back, but I just remembered about this soup. Not as high classy as yours, but man does it taste good.

You should know better than to try and do your own manual labor! That is what technology is for ;-)


PS - Better to have chestnuts than chinnuts is what I say.

PSS - I am in a very childish mood today. wuahahah

Anna said...

ATP - I have serious suspicions that I may be the only one to have suffered so cruelly at the hands of the chestnuts. No one else seems to have this same issue! If I had thought of gnawing the buggers open, I am sure I would have.

Ben - Peanut and ginger soup? That sounds incredible! You should give serious thought to convincing your Mom to start a food blog. Or at the very least to write these things down and send them to me. I am not so good with the manual labor, it's true. I am supposed to know what a chinnut is, aren't I... Sigh.