Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Roasted Chestnuts

In keeping with the simplistic nature of recent recipes, (it has gotten a little busy around here) roasted chestnuts are not only wonderfully easy, but bring us even closer to the uncomplicated pleasures of seasonal eating. The sweet meat of a chestnut makes me think of all the snow doused woodland creatures and their assumed delight upon finding such a treat scattered beneath a sprawling tree; quite a generous find.
Chestnuts (once also referred to as the "bread tree") are part of the same family as the oak and beech. The nut itself is so starchy and sweet, it has been widely used dried and milled into flour. Excellent for stuffing fowl and poultry, chestnuts are also commonly used to thicken soups, stews and sauces or featured in a special dessert. The flour can be made into cakes, pastas, breads and fritters, highlighting the nut's delicate flavor.
A Swiss man often sets up a stand outside my local grocery store peddling freshly roasted chestnuts this time of year. The smell and warmth of his stall almost always wins me over. A couple of dollars and he will fill a paper cone with the steaming nuggets, a perfect treat for a cold winter day. As I peel them open, still warm, and pop them one by one into my mouth, I believe I may be doing something fairly timeless as well as universal.
Chestnut trees are found across the globe from Asia to Europe, North America to New Zealand. The nuts are used differently from region to region, yet I believe eating them roasted and straight out of the hull is a good as it gets.

Roasted Chestnuts:
*A bag of ripe chestnuts (press the outer hull between your fingers. If there seems to be a bit of space between hull and meat, the starches have begun to convert into sugars, making them prime for roasting).

Preheat oven to 425.
Wash chestnuts. Towel dry.
Score a shallow x into one side of each chestnut to allow steam to escape while roasting. Arrange chestnuts x side up on baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before peeling away skin and enjoying by the fire.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chocolate Dipped Figs

A few days of fat snowflakes swirling in the air has landed me smack dab in the center of the holiday spirit. The tree is up and strung with lights, and the dog has been happily snoring by the wood stove. A good day to be in the kitchen. Unlike many other sweet holiday treats, these simple chocolate dipped figs only require about 15 minutes in the kitchen, so you are left with plenty of time to wrap gifts or take a brisk walk. Great as a simple gift or a quick, yet elegant option to bring to your next party.

Chocolate Dipped Figs:
*15 'unsulphured' dried figs
*4 oz high quality extra dark chocolate (70% or 80%)

Divide chocolate into small pieces. Place in a double boiler or a small metal bowl set over a small saucepan filled 1/4 with water. Bring water to a boil. Allow chocolate to melt, stirring occasionally with a rubber scraper.
Remove from heat.
Line a baking sheet with wax or parchment paper. Working with one fig at a time, hold stem end and plunge into melted chocolate, rotating to coat bottom third of the fruit. Allow excess chocolate to drip into bowl before placing on the parchment. Repeat with remaining figs. Chill until chocolate hardens, about 5 minutes. (I placed them outside briefly, this did the trick).

This recipe works well with most all kinds of dried fruit. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Caviar. . . A Closer Look

A short article appeared in this month's SAVEUR on the subject of caviar, and I have never wanted to jump right into a photo more than this one. The shiny black eggs nestled in their stylish little tin look almost as if they could jump right off the page and straight into my mouth. The article got me thinking more about this often unattainable food, and its notorious questionable practices in harvesting. The beluga, sevruga and osetra sturgeon numbers dangerously declined by overfishing and poaching due to the high price set upon their eggs. For a time, eating traditional caviar was right up there with wearing a mink or leopard fur trench. Fortunately, caviar harvesting became strictly limited, and eventually numbers rebounded. During this time, the demand for caviar remained, forcing the industry to look elsewhere for alternative sources.
Nowadays, it is common to find trout and salmon caviar, among many others in specialty stores and by mail order. This is a good thing, because large oceanic creatures such as sturgeon, need ample time and opportunity to reach maturity, while other fish reproduce much more prolifically. However, true caviar connoisseurs do not care for substitutes. This is why aquaculture is being praised for producing a more sustainable version of traditional caviar.
According to the article, a little town called Calvisano, located between Venice and Milan, is known for Agroittica Lombarda, one of the most abundant caviar farms in the world. Raising white sturgeon since the 1980's, (and now osetra and beluga) using a continuous supply of fresh groundwater, their caviar is renowned for purity and taste. Although the industry will always struggle to keep harvesting practices balanced, places like Agroittica Lombarda are setting a fine example of how alternative farming methods, when mindfully operated, can sometimes reign supreme.
While the price for true caviar still remains high, (an ounce of Calvisius white sturgeon caviar sells for $61, the osetra for $89 an ounce), there are times when indulgence also has its benefits.
An excellent source of calcium and phosphorus, caviar also contains protein, iron, calcium, magnesium, and selenium. Vitamins include: B12, B2, B6, B44, C, A and D, as well as a whole host of important amino acids and precious Omega-3 fatty acids. Another perk; all of these benefits are gained from small portions. A little bit of caviar goes a long way nutritionally speaking.
I am not one to go overboard on frivolous food items, but all things considered, I may be putting in a special request to Santa Claus this year, with perhaps a mother-of-peal spoon to go alongside.