A few days ago, right on my son’s first birthday, it started snowing here in Nuremberg. The weather is getting more and more Christmas-y which is to say it’s been chili. You open the door to go outside and feel very much alive.
I can’t believe I am starting this post with a talk about weather! It feels like writing a letter to an old friend, but I just returned from a grocery store run and my cheeks are still burning. Winter in Germany, of course, has nothing on winter in Russia. My parents say, it’s -20°C (-4°F) in the Urals, where I am from, right now.
Around here it’s about 0°C (32°F) which still calls for hearty heavy food. I’ve been cooking lots of soups, gratins, pasta, and risotto. Nigella Lawson’s new book Cook Eat Repeat has been indispensable lately.
I started with her Tuscan soup with Cavolo Nero. And if you are anything like me and have to google what Cavolo Nero is, I’ll make it easy for you — it’s a type of kale that is common in Italy. I’ve never seen it at my market, so had to make do with regular kale. It’s the kind of soup that has plenty of vegetables, beans, and then when it’s almost ready you tear some stale sourdough into it and grate parmesan over the top. Might I use the word “divine” here?
This month I made myself a present for my son’s birthday (makes sense, right?) and got my first ever — believe it or not — Le Creuset pot and broke it in with Nigella’s Tuscan soup. I’ve been using the pot almost every day since, partly because it is so good, partly because when you pay that much for a pot you have to use it every day to justify the investment (it’s like Monica and her boots, if you know what I mean).
From the same book I made fennel gratin and eggplant onion dip. This was during the week, when I accidentally bought way too much fresh produce — that’s a real thing, can happen to anyone. I went to the market in the city center and got me a huge pumpkin, two kilos of cucumbers, three fennel bulbs, three eggplants, two zucchini, and then realized I’ve also placed an online order for two kilos of apples, a kilo of beets, a kilo of carrots and a kilo of quinces.
For a couple of days I had to use all my free time — of which I have little — to cook through the piles of vegetables and fruits. So eggplants were turned into a dip. Zucchini — into turkey zucchini burgers from Ottolenghi. Apples — into oladushki, Russian mini-pancakes. Quinces — into quince pomegranate jam.
If you remember my epic failure with quinces in October, I am happy to report that I redeemed myself, not without some help from Nigella once again. She has a recipe for pomegranate-poached quinces in her book, which is the inspiration behind my jam.
And while we are on the topic of jam, I’ve also made one from chokeberries, known as aronia in German and черноплодная рябина in Russian. Chokeberries were my somewhat new ingredient of the month. I have tried them back in Russia, but never cooked with them.
I prepared this jam just like I do most of my jams: remove the stalks and wash the berries, place them in a saucepan along with sugar (50% to 100% of the weight of the berries, depending on how sweet you like it), simmer over low heat until sugar dissolves and then some until the mixture thickens. The jam will set as it cools down in jars. I used mine on sirniki, Russian cottage cheese pancakes.
But the real star of November and completely new ingredient for me were chestnuts! In Germany, they are sold at street stalls around Christmas time. Grilled over fire, they are considered the ultimate late fall — winter snack. I’ve tried them once about a year ago and was immensely underwhelmed.
Let me put it like this: you can’t call yourself a nut and taste like potato. And this comes from a Russian woman who loves potato! But chestnuts on their own, simply roasted (or baked), taste like very mediocre, bland, starchy potato.
Nevertheless, since they are in season and I give every ingredient the benefit of the doubt, I opened my cookbooks and searched for “chestnut” on the index page.
The first one I found was chestnut and lardo crostini in Diana Henry’s How to Eat a Peach. The second one — soupy rice with celeriac and chestnuts in Nigella’s Cook Eat Repeat. Both of them used precooked chestnuts in their recipes, although Diana Henry prefers frozen ones, while Nigella opts for vacuum-packed.
So off I went to the supermarket and got a pack of chestnuts, feeling quite stupid, because who buys vacuumed-packed chestnuts in the hight of their season? I reasoned that that’s what the recipes call for, so it is what it is.
Prepared chestnuts are easy. Open the pack, break the mass apart with your fingers —you are ready to go. They are not as pretty as the fresh ones, dark brown instead of bright yellow and mostly bits and pieces instead of full nuts, but you have to pay the price for convenience.
For crostini, I simply warmed them up in a saucepan with some honey. Then placed them on top of grilled slices of bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with speck (in place of lardo, because I am in Germany). Drizzled some olive oil on top — et voila! A fancy breakfast in ten minutes!
On the other hand, Nigella’s soupy rice with celeriac and chestnuts is a rustic, heavy meal, that you want to eat on a cold fall evening. Which is exactly what we did. Chestnuts added to the carb load and heartiness of this soup.
Once I familiarized myself with chestnuts and realized they can taste good when strategically added to a dish, I absolutely had to try the fresh ones. And because I felt confident after my crostini and soup success, I bought a kilo.
Now, chestnuts not only do not taste like nuts, they can’t be stored like nuts either. You can’t let them sit around or they’ll spoil, which I learned only after bringing a kilo home. I made two batches of roasted chestnuts in one day, and it did not go as well as I expected.
Peeling was beyond annoying: the flesh crumbled, while the shells burned and cut my fingers (you are supposed to peel them, while chestnuts are still hot). Besides, they didn’t cook through evenly: mostly soft, but with occasional hard bits here and there.
I made ricotta pancakes with chestnuts and bacon from the first batch, recipe courtesy of Mimi Thorrison. For some reason, I can’t imagine Mimi Thorisson going through the same struggle with chestnuts as I did. She does everything so elegantly that her chestnuts must slip off the shells seamlessly, on their own accord.
The pancakes, by the way, were made with chestnut flour, so, as you see, in November I tried chestnuts in all possible shapes and forms.
With the second batch of roasted chestnuts I made these chocolate bars by Ottolenghi. If you have to sacrifice your free time and feel pain in order to peel chestnuts, this recipe will make it all worth it. These are the most intensely-chocolate chocolate bars out there. Plus, they have bits of figs and white chocolate inside.
Finally, with the leftover chestnut flour I made fresh pasta with ricotta-parmesan sauce, recipe by Emiko Davies. It takes only fifteen minutes to prepare if you don’t count an hour to rest the dough. It’s a lot easier than it looks, give it a try!
After I bravely and openly talked about my struggle with chestnuts on Instagram, many people sent me messages saying that I should soak chestnuts in water before roasting them — that should help with easy peeling. But, to be honest with you, I am not sure when I will find the courage to buy them again. After all, I was told that blanching will help — and it didn’t.
On the bright side, I feel bad no more about buying pre-cooked chestnuts. Vacuum-packed all the way! If I have to struggle that much to get something of a shell, it better be crab meat.
The last new ingredient of the month was spelt. I was looking for a recipe to use up beets when I came across this beetroot and horseradish risotto in Saveur magazine.
The recipe goes like this: boil spelt and set aside, cube and marinate beets and set aside, mix creme fraiche with prepared horseradish (make the horseradish beforehand) and set aside, thinly slice fennel and set aside, reduce beetroot juice and set aside, warm up stock (that you made beforehand) and set to the freaking side — you get the drift.
This recipe wasn’t going to make my life easy, but I decided to try it anyways. Took me two hours — will take you less if you don’t have a one-year-old as a sous-chef. Don’t be discouraged, though: the recipe is not complicated, but you do have to wash lots of dishes afterwards.
The risotto turned out incredibly creamy, flavorful and fragrant. By the end I felt very much like a chef, assembling the whole thing together. My plan to use up the beets failed miserably, though. I used one of the ten beets in my fridge and, additionally, had to buy a liter of beet juice. So I might be left with more beets now than I had before.
Finally, as I keep cooking through Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, here are a few more dishes that I prepared. Squash and tahini dip.
Barley and parsley salad.
And couscous with burnt bottom, which is neither local nor seasonal, but the crust turned out so good that I couldn’t not share it.
All right, this is November! I can’t believe what started in May as a random blah-blah post turned into monthly reports on my kitchen successes and failures. And, while I am consistently missing deadlines (which are on the 3rd), I do keep posting every month nevertheless.
I am excited about all the holiday cooking (and baking) in December. I’ve been flipping through the pages of Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss for the past few weeks, choosing which cookies to make. I am thinking Vanillekipferl, Biberle, and Elisenlebkuchen, but will see in the December Seasonal Eating post, shall we?