Tales from an Italian kitchen
Christmas sides and asides
The other night we roasted chestnuts. Not over an open fire, nor in the oven as I usually do, but in a frying pan on the hob. I’d never cooked chestnuts this way, thinking it required a special pan that looks like a cross between a frying pan and slotted spoon. But when I tried to buy one of these holy padella per
castagne, the man on the stall told me they were a waste of time and that an ordinary frying pan worked just as well.
So I scored the curved side of some handsome chestnuts, tipped them into a frying pan and lit the gas. Part of the joy of chestnuts is the crackle: the way their slashes open into grins, or how they flash their bottoms as they roast, making the kitchen smell like hot buttered toast and smouldering wood. After 15 minutes of roasting and pan-shaking, I bundled the hot nuts into a slightly damp tea towel to steam and to loosen the shells, and we waited, drinking red wine, with a seven-yearold asking, “are they ready yet?” for each of the 10 minutes.
Finally, the unbundle! Our first proper red wine and caldarroste of the year – the first of many festive rituals, and the start of our very own Christmas chronicles.
Every damned nut was rotten. Despite the buttery outside, the hearts were either black or green and tasted like a mouldy wall.
It was too late to get more. Luca cried, I drank more wine and Vincenzo picked over the chestnut wreckage like an expert looking for answers. Meanwhile, some braised red cabbage caught and soldered itself to the bottom of the pan, and I burned my hand pulling it into the sink. It was the end of the world. Until I remembered it wasn’t, and we did the sensible thing and went for a pizza.
And the moral of the story is: don’t judge a chestnut by its skin – especially if you have bought it from the back of a lorry just off the Via Ostience. Also, don’t take your eye off the cabbage. Or maybe it is simply a reminder for me that, at this time of year, when there are multiple rituals to be fitted into your advent calendar, things can go wrong and feel like the end of the world – even when they aren’t.
With that in mind, I hope to fit two of these dishes (see p14), into our still-uncertain Christmas eating. The first is the red cabbage – it comes into its own when braised/ baked with onion, apple, sugar and vinegar, transforming it into a succulent, burgundy slump. It’s as perfect with Christmas Eve sausage and mash as it is Christmas dinner.
The second is the River Cafeinspired chard gratin with anchovy, olives and a breadcrumb crust, because it is delicious, an alternative to meat and can be made in advance. The third is the bitter delight that is radicchio, pan-fried with pancetta, for Christmas Day.
Last but not least, I am hoping for more roasted chestnuts, crumbled into heavily buttered, nutmeg-flecked cabbage or spouts – just the simplest and nicest combination, especially with turkey and sweetly aromatic bread sauce made to Jane Grigson’s recipe. But this time, someone else can buy the chestnuts.