Perfect for the season, they are often a supporting player in fall cooking. They are hard to categorize, so they rarely get the respect they deserve. They are encased within a shell, have a unique, firm texture and taste incredible when roasted on an open fire (or in a 350 degree oven). They are chestnuts, the holiday nut that has a nutritional profile similar to brown rice, with more carbohydrates than fats, and vitamins not found in other nuts. Barely noticeable to the eye once you stir them into the slow-simmered sauce, the chestnuts add a special sweet meatiness, similar to a thick, roasted portobella mushroom.
The first time I had a chestnut was when my mom roasted fresh ones in the oven when we were decorating our Christmas tree on an early December weekend (we didn’t have a fireplace in Southern California). I tried this myself a couple years ago, but forgot to make slits in the shells that would have allowed steam to escape. When I took them out of the oven, they started exploding, and I thought I was going to be blinded by chestnut shrapnel. Thankfully, I was unscathed, but now I buy canned chestnuts, usually imported from France, that have already been cooked and peeled. Ready-to-use chestnuts are also sold in jars or vacuum-packed and are easy to find in stores at this time of year.
I adapted this recipe from Food & Wine magazine, which previously adapted it from Daniel Boulud. I used a whole 10 oz. can of chestnuts and a combination of ground turkey, ground sirloin and pancetta for the meat. Because of the 45 minutes of simmering time, this is best done on a weekend when you want a warm pot of something cooking on the stove. It also makes a ton of sauce, but freezes very well. The lucky people you feed with this may not be able to put their fingers on the secret ingredient, but they will love this Bolognese.
Spaghetti Bolognese with Chestnuts
Serves 6 to 8
1 lb. lean ground turkey
¾ lb. ground sirloin
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 oz. pancetta, cut into small pieces
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tblsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
½ tsp. dried basil
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 ½ c. dry red wine
1-28 oz. can tomato puree
2 c. low sodium chicken broth
¼ tsp. sugar
1 lb. spaghetti
½ c. heavy cream
10 oz. can cooked chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped
parsley, chopped, for serving
parmigiano reggiano, for serving
In a large pot or dutch oven, cook the turkey and sirloin over medium heat just until the meat is no longer pink (If your pot is not nonstick, cook the meat in a small amount of olive oil). Season with salt and pepper. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towel to drain. Pour out any remaining fat from the pot. Add the pancetta to the pot and cook until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Drain off all but a tablespoon of the pancetta fat from the pan and add the celery, carrot and onion. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown. Add the garlic, rosemary, basil and crushed red pepper flakes and cook for one more minute. Season with pepper and a pinch of salt. Add the turkey and sirloin back to the pot. Stir to combine and add the red wine. Raise the heat to bring the liquid to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomato puree, chicken broth and sugar. Season with pepper and raise the heat to bring to a boil. Lower the heat again and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is reduced by half, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water.
Stir the heavy cream into the sauce and add the chestnuts, reserved pancetta and a small handful of chopped parsley. Drain the pasta and serve, topped with the Bolognese sauce, additional parsley and grated parmigiano reggiano.