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Cooking Off the Cuff: An Autumnal Risotto Inspired by... Twitter

I thought about a paella but knew I'd deploy too many flavors that could mask the key ingredients. Risotto, then, seemed the way to go.
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It's a special treat to go to the farmers' market and see fresh chestnuts, because almost all of those in the supermarket or greengrocer have been imported either from Italy or from China, and who knows when they were gathered. It's tempting to buy lots, but prudence dictates a small purchase for the simple reason that peeling them is a slow process, albeit a gratifying one and not as difficult as you might think.

So I bought just one pint basket of the American-Asian hybrid chestnuts that seem to be favored in New York State for their disease resistance. They're smaller than the big Italian nuts, but they're sweet and generally fresh and in good condition. That same day I also picked up a fragrant celery root, something that Jackie and I eat fairly regularly from late summer well into winter.

At the time, I made no connection between the two ingredients, but when I checked into Twitter a couple of days later, I saw a photograph from the remarkable Paris restaurant Arpège (@ArpegeLive) of a dish combining guess what: Chestnuts and celery root. I wouldn't believe in some of the gorgeous pictures Arpège and its chef-owner Alain Passard tweet if we hadn't been to the restaurant and seen such marvels for ourselves. Still, the way that perfect little composition was put together was beyond my understanding without a recipe, but it forged a link between my pint of chestnuts and my celery root.

Of course, what we needed was not a supernal mouthful that would be part of a multi-course menu but dinner, all on one plate at the same time. I wondered whether braising the chestnuts and the celery root together with shallots and herbs would yield a good side dish for, say, a duck breast. It would have, and I may do that some time. But we had no particular yen for meat. We always have a yen for rice, however. I thought about a paella but knew I'd deploy too many flavors that could mask the key ingredients. Risotto, then, seemed the way to go.

First of all, I had to peel those damned chestnuts. There are lots of ways to do it, but my favorite is this: With a sturdy paring knife (unless you happen to have the hook-beaked tool specially made for this job) score the flat side of about half a dozen chestnuts in an X pattern - cut right through the carapace, and if you cut a little way into the flesh that's fine too - put them on a microwave-safe plate, cover them with an upturned bowl and microwave for one minute. During that minute, start scoring another half dozen. Begin peeling the first batch while they're still hot (it's far easier that way - which is why you're doing only six at a time). Wearing a latex or other thin glove (you'll get sore under your thumbnail otherwise) and if necessary using a towel to hold the hot chestnut, peel away the glossy outer shell and the tan inner skin until the meat is free to pop out. Be careful when scoring the chestnuts: There are many opportunities to cut yourself badly.

When they were peeled, I let the chestnuts cool completely, then sealed them in a plastic bag, as I wasn't going to use them for a couple of days.

I made the risotto using a technique similar to that for the triple-carrot risotto I wrote about back in April, so I won't go into the details. In this case, however, I used diluted chicken stock (salted and infused with fresh sage leaves - vegetable stock would have been fine), and omitted the garnish of croutons. And, of course, I substituted celery root for carrots and added two handsful of peeled chestnuts along with the first dose of stock, the larger ones cut in half. To yield nice 3/8-inch (1-cm) dice of celery root, I squared up the peeled vegetable; I grated the remainder and added it to the pan when the shallot had softened in butter.

As I was finishing the risotto with butter, I stirred in a few sage leaves, slivered, and the juice of half a lemon. As with the carrot version, I used no cheese: the sweetness and earthiness of the fresh chestnuts and the particular flavor of the celery root stood on their own and needed none of parmesan's savoriness. Just be careful not to under-salt the dish.

With the rest of the chestnuts, I'm thinking about another risotto, this one with mushrooms. Or perhaps I'll go back to the paella idea, as long as I can keep from overloading the pan with superfluous ingredients.

To peel the chestnuts, score and microwave a few at a time
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
You can see why brutal peeling is needed for a typical celery root
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The core of the celery root diced, the periphery grated
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The diced celery root is browned and nearly cooked through before it is added to the risotto
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Peeled chestnuts go into the pan soon after the rice - they take the same time to cook
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The cooked diced celery root goes in at the very end
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
The finished risotto
Photograph by Edward Schneider.