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As the beloved "Christmas Song" reminds us, the chestnut is a traditional holiday treat. Yet in Europe, Asia and Africa, chestnuts are often used as an everyday potato substitute. Although they are wonderful straight from the oven or fireplace, you can make use of the winter chestnut crop in many ways, both sweet and savory.
Probably one of the first foods eaten by man, the chestnut dates back to prehistoric times. The chestnut tree was first introduced to Europe via Greece. Legend has it that the Greek army survived on their stores of chestnuts during their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-399 B.C.
In 1904, diseased Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York carried a fungus that nearly wiped out the American chestnut population, leaving only a few groves in California and the Pacific Northwest to escape the blight.
Chestnut timber resembles its cousin, the oak, in both color and texture and is highly-valued. The trees can live up to five hundred years and usually do not begin to produce fruit until they are forty years old.
Today, most of the chestnut food crop is imported from Japan, China, Spain, and Italy.
Italy and the Chestnut
Over 2000 years ago the Apennine woodlands, which stretch the entire length of Italy’s peninsula along the east coast, were once thick with chestnut trees and villagers survived long winters on the trees’ bounty. The fallen nuts were picked from the forest floor and dried in two-story stone drying shacks, the remains of which can still be found throughout the region.
The nut also played a role in the Roman Empire: On their lengthy campaigns, Roman legions planted chestnut trees to help provide food for their vast armies. Polenta was made with chestnut meal until corn arrived in the 16th century. Castagnaccio or flatbread of chestnut flour baked on an oiled stone, was a common staple. The gluten-free flour was used to bake heavy, dense loaves of bread, and was prized for its resistance to spoilage. The chestnut was a staple during hard times, as well as, nutritious—the starchy nut is high in carbohydrates and has nearly as much vitamin C as a lemon. Chestnuts contain twice as much starch as potatoes. It is no wonder that they are still an important food crop in Asia and southern Europe where they are often ground into chestnut flour for baking.
The chestnut was a part of many traditional recipes and even became a delicacy by the 16th century. A famous Italian chef of the 16th century, Bartolomeo Scappi, included chestnuts in a banquet menu. After roasting and peeling them, Scappi wrapped the hot chestnuts in towels with rose petals, sugar, salt and pepper so that they absorbed all the flavors before being plated.
Yet despite their prevalence in Italian recipes, by the 19th century the chestnut had become equated with cucina povera, peasant food, and was excluded from aristocratic tables. Combined with deforestation and the shift away from agrarian practices, the chestnut was nearly wiped out. Now,it has returned to favor both in Italy and here in the U.S. Its resurgence began with the hybridized Italian marron chestnut. Juicier and sweeter than its old world cousin, the marron is now the most common chestnut used in cuisine. Outwardly it resembles the original chestnut: heavily armored with prickly spines, a dark brown, hard outer shell and a bitter inner skin. Inside, however, where the original chestnut contained two small, flat nuts to a burr, the marron has a single, larger heart-shaped one.
The chestnut is again turning up in top Italian kitchens. They garnish ice cream and fill tarts. They accompany meats and are made into pastas. Chestnut flour is used in breads, cakes and pastries for its nutty taste and sweet smell.
While chestnut vendors line Manhattan city streets around the winter holidays and pedestrians fight the snowy chill with a paper cone of hot, roasted nuts, the chestnut in Italy is still associated with times of hardship. They are given to the poor every November on Saint Martin’s day as a symbol of the sustenance they provided throughout Italy’s history.
Roasting is a particularly popular preparation of the chestnut. Boiled or puréed, they can be served with wild game and they are also a main ingredient in stuffing for poultry. The chestnut’s versatility extends to sweets, also. The flour is used for chocolate cake or cookies and they can be puréed with honey and cream for a rich dessert.
Although, they are harvested from October through March, December is the prime month for fresh chestnuts. The freshest will have glossy, unwrinkled shells and feel heavy in the hand. Choose fresh nuts that are smooth and free of blemishes. Avoid any that are shriveled, cracked, or rattle in their shell. Shake the shell. If you hear movement, you know they are drying out.
Out of season, or for less work, you can find them already peeled, and dried or frozen. ( See buying options at the bottom of this post.) Soak dried nuts for an hour before use. They come candied, puréed or prepared like jam. You can also buy coffee beans roasted with chestnuts and honey made from chestnut pollen.
Fresh chestnuts will dry out easily, so keep them in a cool, dry place, free of drafts, and use within 1 week. Fresh nuts in the shell can be placed in a perforated plastic bag and stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator up to 1 month, depending on the freshness factor when you purchase them. Fresh chestnuts can be frozen whole in their shells up to 4 months.
Although we refer to them as nuts, the meat inside is soft and starchy, more akin to grains rather than crunchy like traditional nuts. It is the only nut primarily treated as a vegetable due to its starch content.
If you are tempted to eat chestnuts raw, think again. These nuts must be boiled or roasted before eating due to the high levels of tannic acid. The nuts are cured for about a week to permit their starch to develop into sugar, thus sweetening the meat. They must be cooked completely in order to avoid digestive discomfort.
The outer thin shell, as well as, the inner bitter brown skin is removed before eating. Removing the skin in its raw state is virtually impossible, but with patience, the outer shell can be removed from the raw nuts.
• 1 pound in the shell = about 35 to 40 chestnuts
• 1 pound shelled, peeled = about 2-1/2 cups
• 1 cup cooked dried = 1 cup cooked fresh
• 1-1/2 pounds in shell = 1 pound shelled
• 8.25 ounce canned puree = 1 cup
• 1 pound shelled, peeled, cooked = 1 cup puree
• 3 ounces dried = 1 cup fresh
To facilitate removal of the shell, you'll need to use a sharp pointed knife to slice either a horizontal slash or a large X along the flat side before roasting or boiling.
To roast chestnuts, make cuts as described above. They can potentially explode from internal pressure if not pierced. Place on a baking sheet in a 400 degree F. oven for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot.
To boil, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for three minutes. Remove from heat. Scoop out a few at a time and peel off the shell and skin with a sharp knife. As they cool, they become more difficult to peel, so keep them in hot water until you are ready to peel. Proceed with your recipe using the peeled nuts, making sure you finish cooking them completely within your recipe.
To boil and cook them completely in their skins, simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, then peel and use, but don't be disappointed if they fall apart as you peel them. This boiling method for chestnuts is best used when you will be mashing the chestnuts for a puree.
To roast in a fire, take an aluminum pie plate and punch rows of holes. Make cuts in chestnuts or puncture them to release steam and place on a grill over white hot coals.
Chestnuts work well in savory dishes as well as sweet ones. Mashed or whole braised chestnuts are good partners with sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, brussels sprouts, and cabbage. However, most Americans use them in stuffing and desserts.
Combine water, leek, onion, celery and carrot in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook for 35 minutes. Add chestnuts and cook until chestnuts are tender, about 25 minutes more. Remove from heat.
Using tongs and/or skimmer, remove vegetables from broth and discard. (Be sure to remove all traces of the vegetables.) Remove 4 chestnuts and set aside for garnish.
Purée soup in 3 batches in a blender until smooth, transferring to a bowl or use an immersion blender and blend the soup in the cooking pot. Return soup to the pot if a blender was used. Bring to a simmer and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add bread cubes and cook, tossing occasionally, until lightly golden, about 4 minutes. You can also bake them in a 400 degree F oven for about 10 minutes or until lightly brown. Cut reserved chestnuts into small pieces. Ladle soup into bowls. Top with bread cubes and reserved chestnut pieces and serve.
Season the turkey fillets on both sides and then lightly brown in the oil. Add the sugar and cranberry juice to the pan, cover, and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the cranberries and cook for 5 minutes, or until the turkey has cooked through and the berries have slightly softened. Sprinkle with thyme leaves. Slice turkey thinly, place over stuffing and pour cranberry sauce over all.
Yield: 6-8 servings
In 3-quart saucepan over high heat, heat chestnuts and enough water to cover to boiling. Reduce heat to medium; cover and cook 10 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat. With slotted spoon, remove 3 or 4 chestnuts at a time from the water to a cutting board. Cut each chestnut in half. With a spoon or tip of small knife (a grapefruit spoon also works well), scrape out chestnut meat from its shell (skin will stay in shell). Chop any large pieces of chestnut meat and place in large bowl. Discard cooking water. Toss bread cubes with chestnuts.
In the same saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add celery and onion and cook until vegetables are golden brown and tender, about 10 minutes. Add diced apples and poultry seasoning; cook 2 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Stir in chicken broth, salt, and 1 cup water; over high heat, heat to boiling.
Pour hot mixture over chestnut/bread mixture; toss to mix well. Use to stuff a 12- to 16-pound turkey or spoon stuffing into a greased 13 x 9-inch glass baking dish; cover with foil and bake in preheated 325 degree F. oven 45 minutes. Serve under Glazed Turkey (recipe above).
Yield: 12 cups or 24 1/2-cup servings
Place chestnuts, ¾ cup sugar, vanilla bean (seeds and pod) and pinch salt in a large saucepan and cover with water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and let chestnuts cool in syrup, then drain.
Put oven rack in center position and heat oven to 350° F. Butter a 9½-inch springform pan with a removable bottom.
Chop chocolate into small pieces. In a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, melt chocolate with remaining 3/4 cup sugar, applesauce and butter, stirring, until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and whisk mixture until cooled to lukewarm, then whisk in egg yolks and flour.
In a clean, dry bowl, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gently fold whites into batter in 2 additions.
Pour batter into prepared pan; gently press chestnuts into top. Bake until top of cake has formed a thin crust, about 45 minutes. Cool cake in pan on rack for 5 minutes, then release from pan and let cool completely.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. With sharp knife, slash shell of each chestnut. Place in jelly-roll pan and roast until shells burst open, about 20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel chestnuts.