The Blog

Cooking Off the Cuff: Cabbage and Chestnuts Make an Autumnal Pairing With Pasta

Most of the chestnuts sold here are from foreign parts (Italy or China); while these keep pretty well on their long journey, it's nicer to eat local ones that are even fresher and sweeter.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I'm always taken by surprise when I see baskets of New York State chestnuts in my local farmers' market: For years there were none to speak of, but with recent blight-resistant varieties they seem to be coming back. Still, most of the chestnuts sold here are from foreign parts (Italy or China); while these keep pretty well on their long journey, it's nicer to eat local ones that are even fresher and sweeter. So most years I'll buy a pint basket and Jackie and I will have two or three chestnut-centered meals. (Why don't I buy more? Because they're not as much fun to shell as, say, peas.)

A classic chestnut pairing is with Brussels sprouts, but the market held a most gorgeous Savoy cabbage, which, with its milder, sweeter flavor, seemed an even better idea. This in turn led to another favorite association: cabbage with pasta and a little bacon, as you might find in the Austrian-influenced parts of northern Italy. Chestnuts would make this even better, I figured. So that was what we had one recent evening.

I started by peeling the chestnuts. There are many ways to do this, but mine is as painless as this task can be. Working in small batches of five or six at a time, I cut an X across the entire flat side of each chestnut, deep enough to go right through the shell and, with any luck, through the underlying brown husk as well. I then microwave them in a covered dish for one minute, time enough for the shell to come away where it has been cut. Then, using a towel to hold the steaming hot nut, I peel back the shell until enough of the kernel has been exposed that it can be removed. Why only five or six at a time? Because once they've cooled they become much harder to peel; the one-minute microwaving time can be used to incise the next batch. (You can wear a thin medical-type glove to protect your fingertips.)

At this stage, the chestnuts, while hot, are incompletely cooked; they now need ten minutes of simmering in lightly salted liquid. I use stock of some kind; last week it was chicken, but a well flavored vegetable stock would make equally good eating. Now the chestnuts can be used in all manner of savory dishes, whole, cut up or pureed.

The cabbage-pasta dish worked like this: For two portions, I put salted water up to boil for the pasta and washed five or six leaves of Savoy cabbage, then trimmed away the thickest parts at the stem end. I cut it into strips 3/8 to 1/2 inch (9 to 12 mm) wide and set it aside. In a skillet, I cooked some smoky bacon cut crosswise into matchsticks (one small but thick-cut slice is enough; you could substitute smoked prosciutto/speck); when some fat had rendered, I spooned a little of it off, replaced some of it with olive oil and added a couple of slivered sage leaves and a sliced shallot (a tiny onion would be okay) and sweated it until the shallot was soft. Now I added a handful of cut-up chestnuts and the chicken stock in which they'd been cooked and brought it to the simmer. As it simmered, I used a strainer to blanch the cabbage strips in the water destined for cooking the pasta: just ten seconds in boiling water was enough.

I added the cabbage to the skillet and stirred to combine, then added salt and simmered (partly covered) until the cabbage was tender but not faded. Meanwhile, I cooked two portions of dry pasta. I used trenette, but fettuccine or linguine would be good with this dish too. And, if you have the energy to make some, rolled noodles made with a blend of white and whole wheat or buckwheat flours would be even better; cut them to the approximate width of the cabbage strips.

I checked the cabbage-chestnut mixture for salt and pepper, added a little more chicken stock so the pasta would have something to absorb, then used a pair of tongs to toss the drained trenette with the vegetables. When combined, I slid it into a warmed serving bowl and finished it with a drizzle of good olive oil. Whether you add cheese is up to you; Jackie and I tasted one forkful with cheese and found it to be a distraction.

There's sweetness here from almost all the ingredients, but this is muted, and the main message is that it's almost November, well into autumn. A great meal (and it would be pretty good without the chestnuts too).

(Another evening, we had a good side dish conceived along the same line of thought: Swiss chard stems "braised" with pre-cooked chestnuts and served with a pan-fried pork chop. This would be good with so many dishes.)

Cabbage and Chestnuts: An Autumnal Pairing