On Sunday TB and I went to one of the Kitchen Cabinet???s?? monthly show and tell sessions followed by a lunch featuring the subject of the talk, the chestnut. If you haven???t been to the Kitchen Cabinet before (this was our first time) it is at the rear of Old Parliament House and is incorporated into the Caf?? in the House complex. The Kitchen Cabinet itself is a small retail area that sells fresh local produce and locally produced foods of all sorts.
Growers Richard Moxon and Alison Saunders gave a very relaxed and informative talk on their chestnut growing (they have a chestnut and walnut growing property at Sassafras about 130 kms away from Canberra towards the coast). The joy of the talk was that we were seated outside in one of the courtyards at Old Parliament House. The poplars were shedding their golden leaves and the crisp sunny Canberra winter day didn???t let the organisers down. While we listened to the talk the smell of roasting chestnuts wafted over the listeners as Richard tended the large roasting pan set up for the occasion.
Even better still were the freshly roasted chestnuts passed around for everyone to try. I???ve been a regular eater of chestnuts for several years now and peeling them, particularly getting the inner skin off can be hard work. Not with these babies ??? the Sassafras Reds were peeled so easily and were a bright, almost sulphurous yellow colour, not to mention beautifully sweet.
Richard and Alison shared some very useful tips on selecting, storing and cooking chestnuts. Firstly only select hard, glossy nuts and only buy nuts that have been kept in the refrigerated or cool shelving section of the shop as this is necessary for maintaining the quality of the product. When you get them home store the chestnuts in a paper bag in the bottom crisper section of your fridge. Alison and Richard pointed out that these are seasonal fruits so realistically you should be buying them in late autumn / early winter (the crops start being picked in March/April).
For cooking the main tip whether you are roasting or boiling them is to start them off hot for the first five minutes and then reduce the temperature a bit for the remaining 15 minutes of cooking. For boiled chestnuts this means putting them in the saucepan only once the water is boiling. Boiling is the best technique if you are preparing chestnuts for sweet dishes as you avoid the possibility of burning them. Roasted chestnuts, prepared in your oven or a covered BBQ like a Webber, are great for soups where the toasted flavour will add to the dish. Please remember to always cut your chestnut???s hull before either type of cooking as they will explode if you don???t! Richard suggested a long cut down the longest side of the chestnut, no more than 1mm, enough to cut the outer hull only. In our experience a Stanley knife / box cutter which can be set so just the right amount of blade is protruding is the tool you need. It will also limit the possibility of cutting your finger off if you get overenthusiastic.
There was one more treat in store for the people attending the talk ??? Chef Janet Jeffs sent out cups of the most delicious chestnut soup while Richard and Alison were talking. Talk about hitting the spot. In Susan Parson???s column in the Canberra Times Food and Wine Guide last Wednesday, she gave a recipe for Chesnut Soup. This is very nice (we tried it today) but wasn’t a patch on Janet Jeffs’ version. Janet said her version was from Claudia Roden and included chick peas as well as chestnuts and was made with beef stock.
After the talk we repaired upstairs to what was the original Members Dining Room for lunch. The architect John Smith Murdoch, who designed Parliament House, also designed the building???s fittings, including the wonderful geometric lights decorative panelling in the dining room. With its re-made Art Deco carpets this is a great space to eat.
We were served a two course lunch, (there was also a vegetarian option), of Roasted Creewah duckling galantine filled with chestnuts, apples, pork and walnuts with a pomegranate jus ??? in other words boned out duck stuffed with all the above. The vegetarian at our table received crepes stuffed with vegetables and chestnuts, but her conclusion was that it was on the dry side and it definitely could have done with a sauce. The dessert which I ate before I remembered to take a photo was a chestnut and walnut tart with a vanilla syrup topped with frankette walnuts (also supplied from Richard and Alison???s farm). I thought that the vanilla syrup went particularly well with both the chestnuts and walnuts. Local wines were available by the glass or by the bottle, as were soft drinks ??? cost not included in the meal. TB had a wonderful Lake George Winery pinot gris, I had a nebbiolo but sadly I???ve forgotten from which vineyard.
We left, after 3 hours having had a very enjoyable time. We stopped at the shop on the way out and bought some fresh medlars, frankette walnuts, and chocolate coated cherries.
At $50 per head ($20 for the talk and $30 for the lunch, you can choose to attend either or both) I thought it was really good value. My pick of the day was definitely the soup. More information on chestnuts can be found on the website of the Chestnuts Australia Inc.??
There is a show and tell on every month so if you are interested you can check them out at the link at the top of the page. We???ll probably see you there.