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Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Stew it over

Life can get pretty busy, which leaves little time for the kitchen. Just look at the cooking section in any bookstore and it's all express this, fast that.
In this day and age it is difficult to dedicate yourself to proper slow cooking. Preparation times are shorter, most people would rather reach for the freezer drawer than sit around shelling peas, and just check out how large the pre-cut vegetable section is at supermarket.
The kind of cooking that takes patience, and forces you to come into line with the seasons, is rare. When I begin to feel a proper chill in the air I know it's chestnut time, and this means I can make one of my favourite family recipes of all time... Chestnut and shittake mushroom stew.

1. When choosing your chestnuts go for shiny ones that are heavy for their weight and don't yield when given a good squeeze. There is nothing worse than getting a bad batch. Once picked, they disintegrate quickly so peel them soon after purchase or store them in the fridge to prolong freshness.
2. Chestnuts are a royal pain in the arse to peel. I usually enjoy this dish whilst nursing scorched thumbs, but it's worth it.
3. NEVER attempt to peel chestnuts in a hurry, it will result in a great deal of cursing and swearing. Put on your favourite podcast and it will soon become a pleasure, not a chore (I did mine whilst bopping along to Diddy Wah's 1977 mixtape)
4. The peeled nuts can be stored in the freezer for when you need them.


What you need
1 small can of chinese water chestnuts, drained and chopped in thirds
2 big handfuls of dried shittake mushrooms
2 big handfuls of chestnuts
dark mushroom soy sauce
1 tablespoon of marigold vegetable bouillon powder
2-3 star anise pods
1 teaspoon of 5 spice power
sesame oil
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon cornflower mixed with a little cold water

The do
THE DAY BEFORE: Place the mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water. They will float, so put a small plate over the top to keep them submerged.

With a small sharp knife, very carefully score a deep cross into one side of each chestnut. Throw three at a time into a small saucepan of simmering water for around 10-15 minutes, fish them out with a slotted spoon and throw another three (or more if you are a fast peeler) into the water.
Peel away the tough brown shell and downy inner skin, this is easy if done while the nut is still hot or warm. If they are left to cool down you will find it extremely difficult. Repeat. When the nuts are all done, drain the mushroom water into a jug. Trim the stems off and cut into two. Put a big heavy saucepan on medium heat and throw in a few lugs of oil.
Fry the garlic, 5 spice, water chestnuts, chestnuts, mushrooms then after a minute add a lug of mushroom soy. Fry for a few more minutes then add the mushroom water, stock powder and star anise. The liquid should just cover the ingredients, if not, top up with boiling water. Bring to boil, then simmer with the lid on until chestnuts are soft, stir gently every now and then, taking care not to break up the chestnuts. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed.
Add cornflower mixture, stir, and simmer with the lid off for another 10 minutes.
Fish out the star anise, drizzle sesame oil over the top and serve with brown rice and steamed pak choy or bok choy.

* Any Chinese grocer should have all the ingredients for this dish. I was recently overjoyed at discovering Thai-An Grocery in Chapel market, near Angel station. It sure beats pack-horsing all my goodies on the bus from Chinatown.

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