Nights when the air is crisp and fresh with a snow-like chill remind me of chestnuts. The warm woody aroma that comes from them being roasted takes the chill out of the air and there is nothing quite like finding a chestnut roaster on the Italian streets, standing by the coals, selling their hot charred wares in brown paper cones. It takes me back to wintery evenings at home, when my sister and I would help mamma prepare chestnuts around the kitchen table. Only the tip of the sharpest knife could make an incision in the shell of these reddish-brown tough-skinned nuts. We would sit there together chatting and making the required cuts. My father had fashioned an old frying pan by drilling a dozen or more holes in the base with a large drill that were needed to roast chestnuts on an electric stovetop. We would pop the prepared nuts in the pan and soon that sweet, smokey smell of chestnuts would fill the room. Peeling them seemed the hardest thing (this was in the days before the “easy peel” variety was available), especially when the inner layer got stuck in the chestnut folds, and you needed a knife to separate that last layer. I would happily hand them to everyone else to eat after peeling, as I really didn’t like eating them. I loved the taste but the texture was strange, and if truth be known, I was a very fussy eater as a child. The chestnut ritual was only fun because we sat down together, I couldn’t imagine ever using that pan when I moved out of home.
Somehow that pan came into my possession, and followed me around several house moves. But it remained wrapped in a plastic bag for years, forgotten and unloved. About 8 years back, in another house move (when more than half our possessions went into storage), I found the old pan that my father had drilled holes into. I looked at it and could see no use for it, so I discarded it together with a whole lot of other seldom-used items. Not long after my mother (and father who was still around) asked me for it, and I had to tell them it had got “lost” in a house move. Oh the shame! The precious chestnut pan was lost forever. Lost but not forgotten, as mamma brings it up regularly. Whenever anyone mentions chestnuts. she sighs “remember that pan you lost?”. I will never live it down…
And there was a reason I tossed out the beloved pan: I still don’t enjoy the texture of roasted chestnuts; the flavour yes, but not the texture (and I can hear many of you chestnut-lovers gasp). So I walk past chestnut roasters, soaking in the warming aroma and reliving memories of preparing them with my family, but never stop except to take a photo and tell the story of throwing out the pan. Luckily there are plenty of other ways to eat chestnut products: chestnut flour is wonderful in pasta; chestnut spread is delicious on toast; and I have recently started boiling them whole, then peeling them, slicing them thinly and gently frying them in butter. This makes the best crispy chestnut slivers (a lovely addition to a salad). Last week I tried my hand at making chestnut gnocchi, using a ricotta base rather than potatoes, and they turned out rather well.
I initially tried to make them gluten free (as chestnut flour contains no gluten) but the dough was rather on the wet side, so I tossed in a couple of handfuls of fine semolina when I was rolling them (just like I do for plain ricotta gnocchi). I probably had not drained the ricotta sufficiently, but the extra semolina seemed to do the trick and I was able to roll them easily on a wooden board to make gnocchi with those pretty lines on one side and a little saucer shape on the other to catch the sauce. The gnocchi were surprisingly firm (maybe slightly too firm – I may go lighter on the semolina next time). I tossed them in butter after boiling and then scattered on crumbly blue cheese, raw honey and some crispy chestnut slivers. I didn’t have any fresh thyme, but in hindsight the picked thyme leaves would have been lovely tossed in the butter. The different textures and tastes in the sauce and the weight of the gnocchi make the dish opulent and satisfying, especially when paired with a glass of Nebbiolo for a shared autumnal or wintery lunch. And yes, I do wish I had kept that old chestnut frying pan.
An update on my cookbook Italian Street Food. Though it is being released on 1 November 2016, I am excited to have got my hands on a limited number of copies that I am selling online (to Australian residents only). So if you would like a signed copy before it hits the shops, I can mail it to you or you can even collect it directly from me (if you are in the inner north of Melbourne).
chestnut and ricotta gnocchi with blue cheese and honey
Serves 4 as an entree
450g ricotta, drained
225g chestnut flour
1 small egg, lightly beaten
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon superfine semolina, plus extra for dusting
4 whole chestnuts
130g unsalted butter
raw honey (to taste)
120g firm crumbly blue cheese
Place the ricotta in a bowl and smash it with the back of a fork until it is smooth. Sift the chestnut flour onto the ricotta and stir through. Drop in the egg, add salt and pepper to taste and if the mixture seems very wet, add a tablespoon or two at the most of fine semolina. Cover and place in the refrigerator to rest for an hour.
In the meantime, boil 4 chestnuts for 10 minutes, then drain. Allow to cool, peel, then slice finely. Heat up a small non-stick frypan on high to medium heat and drop in the 20g of butter. When it has melted, add the sliced chestnuts and cook for a few minutes until crisp, tossing as needed. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To make your gnocchi, toss some semolina on your work surface and make balls of dough (the size of small walnuts) and roll in the semolina. Roll on a wooden board (or the concave tines of a fork) and set aside. Repeat until you have used up all the dough. Cover with a clean tea towel if not cooking immediately.
Bring a large wide pot of salted water to the boil. When it has reached a rolling boil, drop in as many gnocchi as will fit without over-crowding the pan (cook in batches if necessary). Whilst the gnocchi are cooking, heat a large non-stick frypan on medium heat and add the rest of the butter. When melted, put the heat on low and toss in thresh thyme leaves (if using). By now the gnocchi should be rising to the surface (will take about 3 minutes). Remove from the water using a slotted spoon; and making sure they are well drained, toss the gnocchi in the pan with the butter (and put the remaining gnocchi in the boiling water if cooking in batches). Turn the heat up to medium-high and pan fry the gnocchi for a minute or two, until they start to take on some colour, tossing as needed. Serve on warmed individual plates, with some of the melted butter spooned on; decorated with crumbled blue cheese, raw honey (to taste – I like quite a lot) and the previously prepared chestnut slivers.