Chestnuts make an appearance in the shops at this time of year and apart from roasting them on an open fire, as the song goes, it is traditional to include them in wintery and Christmas-time dishes. Chestnuts get mixed with sprouts and into stuffings. They also make wholesome soups and stews and light cakes and desserts. Wishing you all a very Happy Christmas. E.L.
You can buy vacuum packed, ready-peeled chestnuts for convenience but it is more economical to buy them fresh. To cook and peel fresh chestnuts, make a nick in the skin on the flat side of each chestnut. Simmer in a pan of water for 15 minutes or roast in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Then peel, taking care to remove both the outer shell and the inner brown membrane. It is easier to peel them while they're still hot, so work in small batches and wear rubber gloves to avoid staining your fingers.
VENISON AND CHESTNUT CASSEROLE (Serves 8)
A great stew for cooking in advance. It can be made 2-3 days ahead and chilled or, freeze the casserole.
1.5kg / 3lb stewing venison, cut into large cubes
200g / 8oz smoked bacon lardons
2 tblsps oil or goose fat
2 onions, peeled and cut into wedges
25g / 1oz flour
4 cloves garlic, peeled and bashed
2 - 3 sticks celery, sliced, plus a few leaves, chopped
a spring of thyme and 2 bay leaves
600ml / 1 pint vegetable stock
1 tblsp tomato purée
1 small wine glass of port
200g / 8oz chestnuts, cooked and peeled
a few thinly-pared strips orange peel
black pepper, to taste
To serve: mashed potatoes, chopped parsley
Preheat the oven to 150° C / Gas 2.
Heat the oil or fat in a large oven proof pan and fry the lardons until the fat on them has released. Remove and reserve the bacon then brown the venison, in batches, over a high heat. When all the meat is browned, reduce the heat, add the onions and fry until softened, adding a little more oil if necessary. Stir in the flour, cook for a minute then return the meat to the pan, with the remaining ingredients.
Cover the pot with a large sheet of greaseproof paper and a lid, then cook in the oven for about 2 hours or until the meat is very tender. Check seasoning. Serve with mashed potatoes and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
To reheat the casserole: defrost thoroughly if frozen and bring to room temperature. Heat for about 40 minutes at 180° C / Gas 4 for 40 - 60 minutes. Stirring halfway through this time.
CHESTNUT & CHOCOLATE PAVLOVA (Serves 8)
Every Christmas, my grandmother made Marron Chantilly, a sweet confection of whipped cream and vanilla scented chestnut purée. This recipe is a variation on the theme.
4 egg whites
125g / 4oz light muscovado sugar
125g / 4oz caster sugar
2 tsps cornflour
2 tsps white wine vinegar
300ml / ½ pint whipping or double cream
1 tblsp brandy or rum
250g / 9oz can Clément Faugier sweet chestnut spread 50g / 2oz dark or milk chocolate buttons
Preheat the oven to 180° C/ Gas 4 and line a large metal baking tray with a sheet of baking parchment. Mix the two sugars together making sure that there are no lumps in the brown sugar. Cream together the cornflour and vinegar and set aside.
Whisk the whites until they form stiff peaks. Add one third of the mixed sugars and continue whisking until the sugar it is completely dissolved and there are no freckles of brown sugar in the mixture. Add half the cornflour and vinegar mixture and the second third of sugar mixture and continue whisking. Finally, add the remaining cornflour and vinegar with the last of the sugar and continue whisking until you have a smooth glossy mixture.
Tip the meringue onto the centre of the baking parchment and, using the back of a metal spoon, gently spread the mixture out to form a 20cm / 8 inch disk of meringue. Place the meringue in the centre of the oven then lower the temperature to 120* C / Gas and cook for 1 hours. Turn the oven off and leave the meringue to cool.
When ready to serve: transfer the meringue to a large plate. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks and gently stir in the rum or brandy. Add a tablespoon of warm water to the chestnut spread and stir to soften. Mound the cream onto the meringue base. Place spoonfuls of the chestnut on top of the cream (you may not use all the chestnut - the more you use the sweeter the end result). Then, using the tines of a fork, swirl through the cream. Decorate with the chocolate and dust with icing sugar.