Thursday, January 05, 2006

Yummy Chestnut-Scallop Soup

Along about this time every year I get this question: "What can I do with chestnuts besides stuffing?" Chestnuts are widely available this time of year, precooked, in jars or in vacuum packs. They are a versatile food, nutritionally similar to brown rice. In Europe they are used in a variety of breads, vegetable dishes or in rich seasonal desserts. I love them in soups.

Recently I had a pound of dry scallops that needed to be cooked. Scallops as we usually find them in the US are the muscles that hold the shell halves together. Harvested from the Eastern US coast up through the Canadian coast, they come two ways: "wet" or processed, and "dry."

Processed scallops are soaked in a phosphate solution, which has two results: first, it prolongs the shelf life of the scallops; and secondly it causes the scallops to absorb the liquid, plumping them up. When heated, the scallops give up this liquid, making it almost impossible to get them browned before they are disagreeably tough. If you buy frozen scallops, check the bag carefully. You could be paying for water content of up to 30-35%.

Dry scallops, on the other hand, have a shorter shelf life, but, patted dry before cooking, will turn a lovely golden brown well before they are overcooked. Dry scallops must have a moisture content of 20% or less. They are more expensive than wet scallops, but you’re not paying for a lot of water. You can order them from specialty markets, or ask your supermarket seafood counter to order them for you.

So, as I was saying before I started that little lecture, I had a pound of large scallops (U-10, meaning 10 or fewer per pound) that needed to be used. I have made chestnut soups before, but was inspired to try it with the scallops, and was I glad I did! It was very quickly done, and everyone declared it fabulous. I had a loaf of crusty bread and a green salad, and that was all we needed for a great meal for a chilly evening.

You can make the basic soup earlier in the day, or even the day before, and chill. Then at serving time, reheat the soup and the bacon garnish, sear the scallops and bring out the bread and salad. Wouldn’t this be a wonderful way to end a cold winter day?

Creamy Chestnut Soup with Scallops

3 slices good smoked bacon (I used applewood-smoked)
Olive oil, if needed
3 large shallots, peeled and minced
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
7 to 8 oz cooked chestnuts
1 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 lb sea scallops (see note)
2 tbsp all purpose flour
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, plus sprigs for garnish (see note)

Cut the bacon crosswise into 1/4" strips. In a heavy saucepan, cook over medium heat until lightly browned, but not crisp. Remove with a wooden spoon and reserve. Add the shallots. Good bacon doesn’t usually leave a lot of fat in the pan. You may want to add a splash of olive oil. Cook the shallots, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes.

Chop half the chestnuts coarsely and add to the soup. Continue to simmer another 5-10 minutes. Puree with a hand blender, or in a food processor. Add the cream and the remaining chestnuts, cut into quarters. Bring to a simmer and keep warm.

In a large heavy skillet over medium high heat, melt the butter. When it is foaming, add the scallops (which have been patted dry) without crowding. Cook until well browned on each side, turning once, 5 to 6 minutes total. They should just barely be done in the center. Remove and keep warm. Reduce the heat to medium and add the flour to the skillet. Stir and cook a couple of minutes, being careful not to brown the flour, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon.

Whisk the flour mixture into the soup, add the thyme leaves, bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, whisking constantly.

Divide the scallops among six flat soup bowls. Ladle the hot soup over the scallops and sprinkle with the bacon strips. Garnish with a sprig of thyme. Serves six as a full meal, or eight as a first course.

NOTE: If you prefer, a pound of boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1" chunks, can be substituted for the scallops.
NOTE: If fresh thyme isn’t available, use 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, and garnish the finished soup with minced parsley. I think this would also be excellent with tarragon, too, although I haven’t tried it. I will, though!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Pomegranate Pasta-For Wine Blog Wednesday

We are near the end of the very short season for fresh pomegranates. Cultivated since pre-historic times, they seem to be native to the Middle East. They appear in Greek mythology, in the Old Testament, and in ancient Chinese art and literature. And they’ve been cultivated in California for over 200 years.

They have a short season--available from November through January—so now is the time to pick up a few. They are touted as having a high concentration of antioxidants, and to possess heart-healthy properties. The seeds provide a high fiber content, and a considerable amount of potassium and vitamin C. In their native habitat, they’ve been used for centuries in folk medicine, to treat all sort of ailments, including sore throats and rheumatism. But that’s not why we like them…they also taste good!

Don’t be intimidated by their appearance. A pomegranate isn’t exactly a beauty contest winner. About the size of an orange, it has a tough dull reddish skin. But within lies the treasure: hundreds of little seeds surrounded by a delicious sweet-tart ruby red pulp. This is the part used to flavor and color grenadine, or to simmer down into pomegranate syrup (also known as pomegranate molasses).

To extract the seeds, you can simply cut off about ?" of the cap, score down the sides and pull sections apart, loosening the seeds from the bitter membranes with your fingers. A word of advice: Do not do this wearing your favorite white cashmere sweater!

I like to eat the little seeds right from the fruit, or scatter them over a garden salad for a burst of color and flavor. They make a wonderful addition to a winter citrus fruit salad. Sprinkle them over grilled or broiled fish instead of lemon juice. Or you can add them to guacamole or hummus for extra tang and zip.

Right before the last Wine Blog Wednesday, I had bought a couple and was trying to think of something new to do with them. I was making pasta for dinner…and here’s what came of it. It was quickly done, and I thought it was really yummy. A crisp green salad and crusty bread makes it a perfect weekend meal. But don’t wait too long to try it--in another few weeks the season will be over!

1 lb boneless chicken breast
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
4 tbsp butter
4 shallots, peeled and minced
1 tbsp fresh mint, shredded (see note)
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
Seeds of one pomegranate
12 oz fettuccine
Fresh thyme sprigs for garnish

Cut the chicken breast into 1" chunks. In a flat bowl, combine the flour, salt and pepper. Dredge the chicken chunks in the flour, shaking off the excess. In a large heavy skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When hot, add the chicken pieces, a few at a time to avoid crowding. Cook until golden on each side. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Add the shallots to the pan and cook, stirring, until tender and translucent, without browning.

Add the wine to the pan and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon. Return the chicken to the pan, cover, and simmer 10 minutes. Stir in the cream and ? of the pomegranate seeds. Cook uncovered for another five minutes.

Meanwhile, bring plenty of well-salted water to a boil and cook the fettuccine until just barely al dente. Drain and add to the pan with the hot sauce. Toss well and serve immediately, sprinkled with the remaining pomegranate seeds and topped with a sprig of fresh thyme.

NOTES: If you can’t find fresh mint, leave it out and use 1-1/2 tablespoons of fresh thyme leaves. If you don’t have shallots, you can use about 1/4 cup minced onion with one clove minced garlic instead. I didn’t think it needed grated cheese, but if you think pasta is naked without it, I would suggest pecarino romano as a good choice.

Hello again!

I'm back...the holidays are over! I like to say that my holiday begins when the store closes on New Year's Eve, but then yesterday we had inventory to do. So maybe my holiday starts today.

Anyway, I've done some cooking this past month, and will share it with you over the next few days.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and wish you all a very happy new year!