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!