Although I adore this extraordinarily rich, fragrant puree, peeling fresh chestnuts is such a time consuming job, I probably wouldn't make it as often as I do unless I could use prepared chestnuts. I use bottled vacuum-packed chestnuts (available in gourmet shops and some supermarkets), or frozen peeled chestnuts, when they are available.
To use fresh chestnuts for this puree, follow this method for roasting and peeling chestnuts, then proceed as directed.
Makes 2 1/2 cups, 4 servings • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 large shallots, finely chopped (1/2 cup) • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
• 1 pound peeled chestnuts, vacuum-packed, frozen or fresh • 1/2 ounce chunk dry cured ham or prosciutto (optional)
• 1 small bay leaf • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
• 1 tablespoon heavy cream or creme fraiche, or butter (optional) • Salt
• Freshly ground pepper to taste
In a medium saucepan over low heat combine the olive oil and the shallots. Cover and cook until they have begun to sweat, about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook slowly until the shallots are golden, 5 minutes longer. Stir in the fennel seed and cook 1 minute longer. Add the chestnuts, ham, bay leaf and chicken broth. Cover and simmer until the chestnuts are falling apart, 30 to 45 minutes. Discard the ham and bay leaf.
Process the mixture in a food processor until perfectly smooth, at least 1 1/2 minutes. Stir in heavy cream if desired. Season with salt and fresh pepper to taste.