Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Chestnuts

My grandmother’s farm has a large chestnut tree growing near the driveway, which is always loaded with chestnuts in the fall. I decided one year to gather the nuts to bring home to roast. This happens to be a rather laborious process, because you must first liberate the nut from their spiny green hulls, and then score each nut’s tough outer shell with a paring knife to prevent them from exploding before sticking in a hot oven to roast. My paring knife must have been dull, because halfway through the roasting process I began hearing violent noises coming from the oven – the chestnuts were exploding in their shells. Whoops! (Exploded chestnuts are not good eating, in case you were wondering.) A little traumatized, I didn’t try roasting them again for several years – this time armed with a super sharp paring knife and a much-improved technique (read on for tips)! They are worth the effort, at least once a year.

A Brief History

There are several different species of chestnut distributed in the temperate parts of the globe, all in the Castanea genus; the most commonly known are the American, Japanese, European and Chinese varietals. Recent DNA evidence shows that all species of Castanea probably arose in eastern Asia, splitting into the Chinese and Japanese types in the Eocene (circa 56 million years ago), then spreading to Europe and North America a couple of million years later. In Europe, nutrient-rich chestnuts became an important staple food, crucial to groups living in the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean (especially parts of France and Italy). The Cambridge World History of Food refers to these as “chestnut civilizations,” that is, groups that “had to fashion their lives around the trees, from planting the trees to processing the fruits.” The ancient Romans are said to have planted chestnut trees wherever they conquered.

The large and beautiful trees were the dominant species in the forests of the eastern North America, important for food and timber. That is, until 1904, when Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus that causes chestnut blight, was accidentally introduced to the US, probably from imported Japanese chestnut trees. Chestnut blight is generally not deadly to Asian varietals of the tree, but the introduction of the blight was devastating to American chestnut stands. By 1940, the American chestnut was virtually wiped out; biologists at Columbia University report that over three and a half billion American chestnut trees were lost in less than forty years. Groups like the American Chestnut Foundation are working to restore the lost beauty of American chestnut trees.

Factual Nibbles

  • Dolly Parton is an awesome lady who happens to love American chestnut trees!
  • The famous song “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is actually named “The Christmas Song” and was written in the 40s by Mel Tormé. About a million artists have recorded a version of the song, but Nat King Cole performed the very best (though you may prefer the Big Bird and Swedish Chef version – it’s kind of a toss up).
  • There is obviously something about the beauty of the chestnut tree that inspires music and literature. The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith” begins: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/the village smithy stands/the smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands.” It happens that the smithy, and the spreading chestnut tree, were both real. The tree was cut down to widen the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but local kids had a chair made out of it and presented to Longfellow as a gift.
  • Chestnuts also inspire art. Vincent Van Gough’s painting “Blossoming Chestnut Branches” was stolen in Switzerland in 2008, but recovered just a few days later. Netsuke are tiny little Japanese carvings made out of various materials, including chestnuts. (The Chinese also carved little sculptures out of chestnuts.) This amazing 19th century Japanese porcelain, titled “Chestnut burr wrapped in leaves” (technically, also a netsuke) resides in the Met Museum.
  • Water chestnuts are not even remotely related to chestnuts (although water chestnut corms do resemble chestnuts).
  • The first recorded sighting of chestnut blight in the US was at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

Cultivation

All species of chestnut are in the Fagaceae family, closely related to beech and oak trees. Both cultivated and wild chestnuts are used as food, although cultivated varieties are much preferred in terms of flavor and size. A spiny covering, called a burr, surrounds the nuts and must be pried open to reveal the treats inside. The nuts themselves have a very hard outer shell that can be difficult to remove. Each major type of chestnut differs in the amount of nuts per burr (from one to two) and the size of the nut, with the Japanese chestnut generally bearing the largest. China, Korea, Turkey and Bolivia lead the way in global chestnut cultivation. Italy, France and Japan are also major players in the chestnut-growing game.

Seasonality

Chestnuts are a cold-weather treat, appearing in markets in the late fall or early winter.

Environmental Impact

US chestnut production is low (accounting for less than 1 percent of total world production, according to the USDA). It not entirely clear how much environmental impact chestnut production has in the US or worldwide; however, according to Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs at the Organic Center, the most likely source of pollution is from herbicides used during the establishment of chestnut orchards. Dr. Shade goes on to say: “Early after chestnuts are planted they are very susceptible to being out-competed by weeds, so weed control is critical. While some growers (such as in organic production) use herbicide alternatives such as fabric mulches or mechanical weeding, many farms still rely heavily on synthetic herbicides. Additionally, synthetic fertilization of orchards could result in nitrogen pollution and runoff.” More information on chestnut cultivation from the University of California is here.  

Also worth noting: most chestnuts appearing now come from Korea, China and Italy, so if food miles are a concern for you, consider seeking out local (or at least domestic) sources of the nuts. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb.)

According to biologists at Duke University, chestnut blight had a massive impact on the ecosystems of North America, contributing to the decimation of several native species of animal dependent on the trees (and nuts), dramatically altering the forest landscape and causing the extinction of seven moth species.

Characteristics

Chestnut trees Chestnuts have a texture and flavor different than any other nut; their meat is sweet and floury in texture.

What to look for

Look for large, glossy nuts that feel heavy for their size and that are free from cracks or chips. Ensure that your chestnuts haven’t dried out by shaking the nut – pass on any that you hear rattling.

Nutrition

Like a lot of tree nuts, chestnuts are loaded with nutritionally good things. They are packed with Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, folate, potassium, copper and manganese. The nuts are high in fiber and are a decent source of protein. Chestnuts also happen to be lower in fat and calories than other tree nuts (like almonds).

What to Do with It

Chestnuts are super versatile, showing up in everything from stuffing to soup to dessert. The nuts can be roasted (in the oven or on the proverbial open fire), boiled, steamed and pureed. They are also commonly ground into flour, which can be used to make (gluten-free!) bread and other delicacies. You can find fresh chestnuts in the market around this time of year, but year-round look for canned or frozen (peeled) chestnuts for an easier chestnut fix.

Cooking

On the savory side, chestnuts are perfect paired with cruciferous veggies (think Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage – see the recipe below), pork, poultry (especially turkey) and game meats. Chopped, roasted chestnuts make a delightful addition to grain salads and rice dishes. A French delicacy is chestnut soup: roasted (or canned) chestnuts are pureed and transformed into a creamy, filling soup. Chestnut stuffing is traditional in British and American cuisine, commonly made to stuff Christmas goose or turkey. Chestnuts boiled in red wine are traditional Christmas fare in many parts of Italy, especially Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.

Chestnuts are also sensational in desserts, pairing fantastically with chocolate, vanilla and even citrus. Probably the most famous chestnut sweets are marrons glaces (candied chestnuts), a French delicacy in which peeled chestnuts are candied in (usually) vanilla-scented sugar syrup. Monte Bianco is a classic Milanese dish made with pureed chestnuts, chocolate and whipped cream; the French Montblanc is similar. 

Chestnut flour is nutty and delicious, and has the added benefit of being gluten-free. In Italy, chestnut flour pancakes called necci are a Tuscan delicacy (here is a neat slideshow of the traditional method of making necci). A couple of years ago in Lucca, Italy, I had the good fortune of being able to trying necci stuffed with ricotta cheese, and they were absolutely delicious. Chestnut cake is commonly made with chocolate or with lemon flavorings. Chestnut blossom honey is a delicacy, especially in Italy. Chestnut liqueur is also produced in both France and Italy.

Storage

Fresh chestnuts are more perishable than other nuts. Unpeeled chestnuts can be stored in a cool place or in the refrigerator crisper drawer for no longer than a week. Once peeled, check for any mold, as often a couple out of a batch of fresh chestnuts may be moldy.

Pro Tips

Check out this time saving (and maybe a little scary?) technique of cooking chestnuts in a microwave! And if you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or fire pit – here’s how to roast chestnuts on an open fire.

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Chestnuts preserve beautifully. Check out this recipe for chestnuts preserved in a congac-infused syrup. This Japanese version simmers chestnuts in syrup for preserving. Chestnuts, cooked and uncooked, also freeze well – here are some methods. Or, my favorite: make your own chestnut liqueur!

Recipe

Red Cabbage and Fennel Salad with Ricotta and Roasted Chestnuts

Raw cabbage and kale salads are my go-so salads during the cold winter months. I always mix nuts or seeds in with cabbage salads, along with a little cheese, and sweet, nutty chestnuts are a perfect match with the bite of raw cabbage and fennel and the creaminess of the ricotta. You can easily substitute crumbled blue cheese, ricotta salata or even sharp cheddar for the fresh ricotta in this recipe. I use a Japanese mandoline to quickly shred the cabbage and slice the fennel super thinly; if you don’t have one, a super sharp knife will do!

I used Marcella Hazan’s method to roast the chestnuts; I find it far easier (and less dangerous) to score the nuts after they’ve been soaked for a little bit.

Ingredients:
12 pound fresh chestnuts
Juice of 12 lemon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
12 medium head red cabbage, cored and shredded
1 small bulb fennel, cored and thinly sliced
2 ounces fresh ricotta
Fennel fronds (optional)

Method:

  1. To roast the chestnuts: Preheat the oven to 450°F. Wash the nuts under cold running water. Fill a small bowl with warm water and add the chestnuts. Soak the chestnuts for 20 minutes. Drain and dry thoroughly. On the flat side of the nut, score each through the shell in an X pattern with a super sharp paring knife. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly and peel while still warm (this is important – if you wait until they are cool, the inner skin of the nuts, which is super bitter, will cling to the meat, making it extremely difficult to remove. Roughly chop.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper until combined. Add the shredded cabbage, the sliced fennel and the chopped chestnuts and toss with your hands to coat. Gently stir in the ricotta. Taste and correct for salt.
  3. Garnish with fennel fronds, if you have them.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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