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Friday, November 24, 2017


As a kid living in Austria, Vienna was a  wonderland at Christmastime. The town simply sparkled. Scattered throughout the sprawling districts and town centers, Christmas Markets (Christkindlmarkets) spilled from most all the city squares. Illuminated by spectacular twinkling lights draped over buildings, crisscrossing streets, and strewn through  trees, Vienna glowed at night. It was like living in a glistening crystal snow globe bathed in pristine swirls of  cascading powdery snow. Wonderland.

Although I didn't go out into the city that much at night, ordinary life in Vienna changed during the Christmas season. Everybody, young and old, embraced the holiday wonder. Frau Olga, a stern level-headed  Czechoslovak Socialist Republic escapee and unlikely nanny to me, embraced the wonder with open arms. Hand in hand, we explored Christmas in Vienna. Every journey into the wonderland was a whirlwind adventure. With my smallish mittens attached to her heavy woolen gloves, we'd hit the town with total abandon. Frau Olga never dallied about or lingered. It simply wasn't her nature. We'd spend hours dodging trolleys, sidestepping cars, jumping curbs, and ricocheting off bustling holiday shoppers. We seemed to be always going somewhere without really getting anywhere. One of the few things that could slow her down was the aroma and lure of chestnuts roasting over open coals. With the most humble equipment ( a grill and a grate) vendors sold crackling hot fresh chestnuts on the curbs of the streets. The aromatic wafts of chestnuts slowed her down and when she slowed down, I slowed down right along with her. Respite from the splendid Christmas chaos. The chestnuts, roasted until the outer shells split open to reveal their tender flesh and served up in paper bags or cones, warmed our bodies and souls. While toys and gifts filled my boyish wants, the visceral memories of  those chestnuts stayed with me forever.

A few years back, Michael and I stumbled across an old roadside stand selling roasted chestnuts under a makeshift tent. Without much fanfare or hoopla, rusty metal barrels filled with coals and topped with grates were covered with  hot popping chestnuts. Lost in the moment, I could feel the squeeze of Frau Olga's warm hand.

Pan Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Roasted Chestnuts, Pearl Onions And Pomegranate.

Fire Roast.
Chestnuts roasted on an open fire.
While vacuum-packed roasted chestnuts are widely available this time of the year, fresh chestnuts are as well. For me, it was about the journey.

After carefully scoring 1 pound Madison County chestnuts on the rounded side, I ignited a stack of coals in an outside grill, let them burn down, and nestled a dry cast iron skillet directly onto the coals before tumbling the chestnuts into the skillet and closing the lid. Sipping on a glass of wine, I opened the grill and shook the skillet from time to time to insure an even roast and to prevent the chestnuts from burning. When the shells cracked open and curled away from the nuts, I pulled the chestnuts from  the coals and wrapped them in a dish towel for a quick steam.

Although chestnuts can be a bear to peel, it's best done while they're
still hot or warm. After carefully peeling away the outer shells, I used a dish towel to rub off the flaky inner skins covering the chestnuts and set them aside.

After slicing the woody ends from 1 pound fresh brussels sprouts, I halved the larger ones, kept the smaller ones whole, and set them aside.

While frozen pearl onions would have done the trick, I prefer the texture of fresh onions. Sure, they're a tad tedious to peel, but the effort is worth the extra step. I snipped the flat ends off 1 pound fresh pearl onions, tossed them into simmering water, covered the pot, and let them blanch for 5 minutes before draining them in a colander, patting them dry, pinching them out of their skins, and setting them aside.

Glaze it and they will come.
I brought 1/2 cup pomegranate juice and 1/4 cup honey to a simmer over a medium flame, added a splash of fresh lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and  reduced it to a light syrup (a whisper of coating on the back of a spoon) before pulling it from the heat to cool.

Pan Roast.
A one pan wonder.
Working over a medium high flame, I heated equal parts unsalted butter and olive oil (2 tablespoons each) in a large cast iron skillet. When the butter started to sizzle, I tumbled the reserved brussels sprouts into the skillet, showered them with salt, and let them rip for 8 minutes before reducing the heat to medium low and covering the skillet. When the sprouts were tender (about 8 minutes), I pulled them from the heat and scooped them onto paper towels to drain.

After wiping the skillet with a paper towel, I returned it to the heat, added a drizzle of olive oil, and sauteed the blanched pearl onions. When the onions caramelized, I added 2 minced garlic cloves and the reserved roasted chestnuts. Just before the garlic browned, I swirled the pomegranate syrup into the skillet and let it bubble away until the chestnuts and onions were lightly glazed before tossing them with the warm brussels sprouts and finishing with jeweled pomegranate seeds.

With bits of slight char, the tender earthy brussels sprouts and slippery sweet onions countered the smoky nuttiness of the roasted chestnuts. While hints of garlic and salt poked through the tart sweet finish of the pomegranate glaze,  the seeds provided  pops of perky fresh crunch.

Holiday nuts.
Over an open fire.

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