I know within two bites if a holiday side dish is truly spectacular. Because I’ll have a nearly uncontrollable urge to elbow the turkey or ham off the table, pull the bowl to me, dunk my face in, and not come up for air until I’m finished.
Growing up, the object of my lust was my grandmother’s recheio com chouriço—a kicky bread stuffing studded with piquant chunks of my aunt’s homemade sausage; it was one of the few Portuguese dishes I would eat.
Fending off cousins on both sides of my twisted family tree (there were so many of us we could’ve started our own touring Christmas chorale) wasn’t easy. But I did it, and I have the pictures of me as a corpulent fourth-grader with a self-satisfied grin to prove it.
After living in Portugal for the better part of 2007 researching my book The New Portuguese Table, I discovered this side dish, which is threatening to cause great calamity at our Christmas dinner this year. It’s a mix of chestnuts and large pearl onions sautéed in—what else? the fat of the year, if not the century—bacon drippings.
And for good measure, bits of crispy-chewy, salty-sweet bacon are toss in for good measure. Chestnuts are an important crop in Portugal, where you can find the nut in just about everything from appetizers, to main courses, to desserts.
Confession (and please don’t go telling this story in your New Year’s Weight Watchers’ meetings): sometimes I whip up a batch, which takes all of 20 minutes or so, and eat the whole thing in front of the TV while watching “Dancing with the Stars.” If I want to feel classy and cultured, I use a cloth napkin and watch “Castle.”
Sautéed Chestnuts, Onions, and Bacon
Castanhas Salteadas com Toucinho Entremeado
- 1/2 pound thick-sliced slab bacon or pancetta, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
- 1 pound pearl onions, scant 1 inch in diameter
- 1 pound peeled, roasted chestnuts (vacuum-packed*, jarred without sugar*, or freshly roasted)
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish
- *Vacuum-packed or jarred are preferred over freshly roasted.
Cook the bacon:
In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the fat has rendered and the meaty bits start to crisp, about 12 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
Blanch and peel the onions:
Meanwhile, fill a bowl with ice and water and set aside. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Drop in the onions and blanch for 30 seconds. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and plop them into the ice water. To peel the onions, snip off the tip and remove the papery outer layers. Set aside the onions.
Sauté onions in bacon fat:
Raise the heat under the skillet to medium, plonk in the onions, and sauté in the bacon fat, stirring occasionally, until spotted with brown and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add chestnuts, bacon, honey:
Add the chestnuts, cooked bacon, and honey and toss to warm through, being careful not to break the nuts--they're fragile.
Season with salt and plenty of pepper and then scoop into a decorate bowl. Sprinkle with the parsley.