Fall Chestnuts

I think fall must be my favorite season as I do love the seasonal produce available each fall such as winter squash, cabbage, brussel sprouts, apples, pears, quince, and of course chestnuts. Chestnuts add a nutty, earthy flavor to foods, and although the season for fresh chestnuts is short, you can find canned or jarred chestnuts year round. When fall rolls around each year, chestnuts once again make an appearance in the marketplace, although at this time they seem to be considered more of a specialty food item than an everyday ingredient which is unfortunate.

Chestnuts have an amazingly long history, and are genuinely thought to be one of the first foods to be eaten by man. Having twice as much starch as potatoes do, throughout history they were eaten by the poor to sustain themselves through difficult times. Chestnuts are relatively low in calories; contain less fat but are rich in minerals, vitamins and phyto-nutrients, as well as some good quality protein. The chestnut tree now found across Europe is said to have originally come from Greece. While several species of the chestnut tree do exist worldwide, the majority of the commercial harvest consists of sweet chestnuts or Castanea sativa, the only species that are native to Europe. Imported Italian chestnuts flood North American markets in November and December, making them a popular holiday snack for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Europeans love their chestnuts; roasting them, boiling them, pureeing them to use in sweets, and finally when fresh chestnuts are no longer available they dry them and grind them into flour. It is often said, that when the leaves fall, so do the chestnuts, and although it may vary depending on weather, generally fresh chestnuts are available from October through to January.

What To Choose When Buying Chestnuts: Choose raw chestnuts those with a shiny, tight, dark brown skin and that feel firm and are heavy for their size and should give slightly when the sides are pressed. You can also buy sweetened or unsweetened chestnut purée, and even pre-cooked, vacuum-packed chestnuts. Avoid any nuts which are soft, off-colored, cracked or moldy. Fresh chestnuts should not be eaten raw, as the tannic acid in them can cause stomach upset.

How To Cook at Home: If buying fresh chestnuts, you will want to either roast them or boil them before you use them. Fire roasting continues to be the traditional method of preparation, but modern cooks will find that oven roasting is a safe, convenient and practical alternative to using a chestnut roaster. I use cooked chestnuts in my soups, sauteed with roasted vegetables, or pureed in soups and desserts.

To Peel Chestnuts: I have found through trial and error after peeling a LOT of chestnuts recently, that instead of cutting an X into the flat side of a chestnut as stated by most resources, if you use a really sharp knife and cut the X at the bottom where the pellicle is attached both the outer hard shell and the inner skin come off much easier. Next, simmer in a pan of water for 7 to 8 minutes. Then peel the chestnuts taking just a few out of the water at a time, taking care to remove both the outer shell which comes off quite easily, as well as the inner brown membrane, or pellicle, which takes a little more time and patience. It’s much more simple to do the latter when they’re still hot, so work in small batches. If you find the inner membrane particularly stubborn, simply pop the chestnuts back into the hot water for a few minutes, or use a sharp paring knife to help remove the skin.

Once peeled, chestnuts can be chopped, added to stuffings, or tenderly sauteed to use in pasta sauces. You can also purée them for soups and sauces. If you want to puree your chestnuts, simmer the peeled chestnuts for 25 minutes and then purée in the food processor. You can also sweeten the purée and use to fill meringues or to add to cake mixes.

To Fully Roast Chestnuts: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (204 degrees C). Using a strong, sharp paring knife, cut an ‘X’ into the flat side of each chestnut shell. This allows the steam to escape during roasting, preventing the chestnuts from bursting and will also make them easier to peel when cooked. Place chestnuts in a single layer on a baking pan. Roast for 25 minutes, stirring halfway through. Chestnuts will be roasted when shells begin to peel back. Remove chestnuts from oven and let stand for five minutes until cool enough to handle, and then peel the shells and skin away from the nuts. One pound of raw chestnuts will yield approximately one cup peeled, roasted chestnuts.

How To Store: Fresh chestnuts dry out very quickly so keep in a sealed container in the fridge. I have read that you can also store chestnuts in an open mesh bag hanging like you would hang onions in a cool, dry cellar for a month or two.

Health Benefits of Chestnut: Chestnuts, unlike other nuts and seeds, are relatively low in calories; contain less fat but are rich in minerals, vitamins and phyto-nutrients that benefit health, as well as some quality protein. Chestnuts are also a good source of dietary fiber which helps lower blood cholesterol levels by limiting excess cholesterol absorption in the intestines and are exceptionally rich in vitamin-C, rich in folates a monounsaturated fatty like oleic acid and palmitoleic acids. As well, these nuts are an excellent source of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc, besides providing a very good amount of potassium. Like hazelnuts and almonds, chestnuts are free of gluten and are therefore chestnut flour is one of the popular ingredients in the preparation of gluten-free foods.

Deborah Mele
November 2011


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