Saturday, April 28, 2012

Toast, That's My Jam Right There. Plus Nuts.

Toast with chestnut puree, mushrooms, scallions and herbs
Toast with chestnut puree, chives and prosciutto
Toast with two savories, forcemeat of sweet sausage, porcini
mushrooms, shallot, Greek yogurt, thyme and parsley with
pickled onions, and saffron-infused potato-apple-garlic
skordalia with braised beef short ribs and fennel 

A rare few things in life are properly rated. Babe Ruth, properly rated. John Bonham, properly rated. Laying around on your day off doing fuck all, under-rated. Stealing bases, over-rated, catcher defense, under-rated. Backing vocals, probably number one most over-rated thing ever on earth. If there is a great celestial price/performance curve for every artistic endeavor, backing vocals are way out there on the continental shelf next to southern accent vocal coaches and gold plated toilets. Toast, the food item, is sadly under-rated. It may be the most under-rated food.

Toast is bread made delicious and useful. Un-toasted bread is okay for children's sandwiches and sopping up barbecue sauce, but for pretty much all other uses, toast is better than bread. An exception is when the bread is fresh from the oven, piping hot, with butter melting all over it. Then it's fantastic, but I would argue that bread fresh out of the oven is a kind of toast. Because I'm an asshole and I refuse to be wrong about something.

Toast is perhaps best used as a vehicle for sweet preserves, cheeses or savories, which can be overwhelming on their own. There is a bit of a trend in high class eateries to serve rich savory items, foie-gras, gelee, confit, ratatouille, monkfish liver or cooked mushrooms nude, accompanied only by some greens or herbs. I am generally opposed to this trend, as these items are hard to eat loose, and can taste strong enough to actually be unpleasant on the palate. I'd make an exception for monkfish liver. Monkfish liver should always be served by itself, as scraping it into the garbage untouched is slightly easier if there's nothing else on the plate. Maybe olive oil.

I ended up with some chestnuts, not sure how that happened*. I think maybe I walked by a big bin of chestnuts and thought, "fuck me, chestnuts." Maybe I'm a Dickensian rascal. No, that would be "fuck, me chestnuts!" Whatever, there were chestnuts. I'll admit to knowing next to nothing about chestnuts, except that cooking them would make them soft enough to puree, and chestnut puree is a classic element in Italian and French cooking, so I asked google for methods. The simplest seemed to be to poach them until the skins softened, then peel them and mash them, so I set to work.

The first step in poaching chestnuts is to cut through the outer hull, partly so the hot water can penetrate into the nut and partly so the nut doesn't explode from pressure. I found a third reason though. The market apparently knew nothing about chestnuts either, because cutting into the nuts exposed grey-blue mold on about a third of the nuts, indicative of... mold I guess. They had a big bin of moldy nuts. Having neither the confidence nor looming starvation of a caveman, I tossed the moldy nuts. Not even going to bother with a joke there.

The non-moldy nuts seemed fine, and I boiled them forever, like two episodes of Colbert Report plus an Antiques Roadshow where I skipped through all teapots. The google said to peel the nuts while hot because then the shells come off easier, so I did that. I had never handled hot nuts before** and was not really prepared for how hot they were. Painfully hot and awkward to handle. The hot nuts were hot*** both in and out of their jackets, and the skins, while softer than uncooked, were still tough to get through. About like carving through a wiffle ball to get at the wiffle. If you've ever done that. I tasted a nut**** and it was pretty good. Sweeter than I imagined and less oily than most nuts***** with a hint of dirt like a root vegetable.

I mashed the nuts****** with a fork for a while, then gave up and threw them in the food processor with some butter, cream, garlic, salt and pepper. I tasted the puree and it was good and rich but needed something green to lighten it. I had bought some Chinese celery leaves at Andy's on a whim, and figured this was as good a spot as any to try them out. I chopped them fine and folded them in and they were perfect. I could have used parsley or cilantro, but the celery leaves were less intrusive and added a nice chlorophyll accent.

So now I had some chestnut puree. Perfect to spread on things. But what? Oh, right, toast. Success with the chestnut puree put me in a frenzy, my mind electric and alive with excitement over what I could plop on top of it. Maybe it was the mold, but I went on a tear. I sauteed some mushrooms with shallots, I sliced scallions, I chopped chives, I peeled slices of prosciutto off the parchment where the butcher put it. Before long I had an attractive plate of toast with savory toppings, all anchored in a mortar bed of chestnut puree.

The chestnut madness evolved into a kind of toast madness, wherein I spent inordinate time making savory toppings, partly as an excuse to use chestnut puree and partly because what the hell toast is awesome.

I made skordalia from saffron mashed potatoes by adding garlic, olive oil and chives, then crowned it with braised beef torn from spare ribs. I made a forcemeat in the food processor out of sausage, yogurt, shallots, porcini mushrooms and thyme, then grilled it into the toast before topping it with some sliced pickled red onion. The toast frenzy lasted a week or so, until I exhausted either the bread or the chestnut puree.

I have since found a packaged chestnut puree, but at $9 a jar, I'm inclined to search for a mold-free supply of chestnuts from a different grocer and roll my own again.

Despite having set it up on a tee, I should get some credit for not using Rudy Ray Moore's "Dolemite for President" chestnut joke. The one that concludes with, "That means you got my dick in your mouth baby!" That old chestnut. I'm not doing that.
** Come on. I mean, you people aren't oblivious.
*** Seriously, I feel like a douche even entertaining the notion.
**** Oh for Pete's sake.
***** Okay that one's not bad.
****** Bush league. 


  1. This may be a "no shit Sherlock" type of comment, but I would be interested in the quality of chestnuts you could find at an Asian market in America. I live in Korea, where people eat chestnuts all the time. You can buy packages of boiled chestnuts in the snack sections of all convenience stores; old ladies roast chestnuts outside certain public transportation hubs; and various prepared and raw chestnuts are available in all supermarkets. I wonder if a Korean or Asian market in America would be better able to provide quality chestnuts.

  2. Preferred bread for toast? Sourdough or rye for me.

    1. Whatever bread is sitting there not toasted yet. Not a big fan of sourdough in any capacity, but if that's what bread there is, that's what I'm toasting.

  3. You might have a look for jarred whole chestnuts, already shelled and cooked. Probably near the puree.

  4. Might be a seasonal thing. When I was a kid my dad used to roast chestnuts in the fireplace (yes, chestnuts WERE roasting on an open fire; go figure), but it was always in the fall. Hence the fire.

  5. The mold, I meant. You might have been consuming last year's nuts.

    1. This is actually from a while ago, probably midwinter. If they were selling me year old nuts I should really write an angry letter.

  6. Completely agree with you on the toast matter. I'm currently addicted to my own recipe. Chives and basil sprinkled lightly on buttered toast and then chop an onion but keep the rings intact and spread evenly over the toast. I'm addicted to onions so it may be overpowering to some. Fucking love it

  7. I work on an organic veggie farm in La Salle county Illinois (Cheer-Accident played here last summer). If you ever need some bulk, high quality veggies, I'd be happy to trade for vinyl =) And also, your food looks great!

  8. Steve, just a random question out of curiosity- Do you have nice, forged cutlery/good utensils or do you just use whatever to cut and chop? Any opinion on the issue?

    1. I have a nice 9" chef's knife, a serrated bread knife. a carving set I don't use much and a paring knife. I usually just use the chef's knife for everything. The exact kind of knife isn't important, but it has to be sharp. I use a stone about once a month and a steel every time I use a knife.

      I own a couple of Japanese chef's knives but I haven't used them much. They're a bit heavy in my hand and I expect I'd have to get used to them before I could use them for everything.

  9. Just want to say thanks for inspiring me to not eat crap as well as listen to it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.