December is a wonderful time of the year, dominated by Christmas decorations, lights, songs, and markets filled with craft work, presents and costumed characters. The aroma of mulled wine and roasting chestnuts hanging on the crisp wintry air, adds to the holiday atmosphere. And indeed, few things usher in the holidays like the smell of roasting chestnuts, coming from the chestnuts carts spread around town.
Inspired by this festive season staple – the chestnuts – we dedicate this post to their return on the menu, and this is not just in America but throughout the rest of the world, too. What we mean by that?
Traditionally, the chestnut was a part of many recipes and even became a delicacy in Europe, few centuries ago. Later, they had become equated with peasant food and combined with deforestation and the shift away from agrarian practices, the chestnut was nearly wiped out from our menu. But they are coming back and today, chestnuts in various recipes are on the menu of many famous chefs.
What type of chestnuts to buy?
We’ve said it many times: we prefer cooking from scratch and try to avoid processed food. Not at all costs of course – whenever it’s possible or when it makes sense. In the case of buying chestnuts, it will mainly depend on two factors – your time and budget. To cook chestnuts is very easy but it takes time. Talking about ready-prepared chestnuts, they have no additives and preservatives (or at least that’s what most of the producers state on their labels). And indeed, like most nuts chestnuts will have relatively long shelf live without the need of conservation. This makes them a very good choice whenever you wish to diversify your menu. The only trouble with the pre-prepared chestnuts is they are significantly more expensive than the fresh ones.
The sweet and tasty European chestnut are very similar to the American chestnut – in fact so much so, that I cannot tell the difference. But if you happen to be foraging for wild chestnuts, don’t confuse edible sweet chestnuts with unrelated (and inedible) horse chestnuts (also known as conkers or buckeye) – they contain a bitter poison called Aesculin, and are toxic for humans.
When choosing raw chestnuts look for those with tight, shiny and unblemished dark brown skin, and most importantly, be on the lookout for small round worm holes. Discard all chestnuts with worm holes, other signs of damage or those coated with black mold.
The ones you’ve chosen have to feel firm and heavy for their size and should give slightly when the sides are pressed. But they should not rattle when shaken. If they do, it is a sign that the nut inside has shrunk meaning chestnuts are not exactly fresh.
Because they are highly perishable, refrigerate chestnuts in perforated plastic bags for up to one week. Alternatively, for longer storage, seal them in an airtight bag and freeze them. Don’t leave them out at room temperature as they will develop mold and go bad quickly.
How much chestnut to buy?
From one kilo (2.20 pounds) of fresh chestnuts you will get about 650g (1.4 pounds) cooked and peeled nuts. You can keep them in an air-tight container in the fridge for few days and use them in various recipes, both savory and sweet. And again, you can freeze them and use whenever you wish later.
How to prepare fresh chestnuts for cooking?
Roasting : hot roasted chestnuts are an absolute classic and this is probably the most popular way to cook them. It’s easiest to roast chestnuts in an oven but before doing so, you need a bit of preparation. Use a strong, sharp paring knife to cut an “X” in the flat side of the chestnut shells. This prevents them from bursting, allows the steam to escape and makes peeling easier.
Roast at 200C -220C (392F – 428F) for about 30 minutes in the oven, or for about 20 minutes on open fire. Fresh chestnuts could be roasted in a pan, too. Put the chestnuts in the pan, sprinkle them with water, cover, and set the pan over a medium flame. Shake the pan frequently and continue roasting until the skins are blackened and have pulled back from the meat where you cut into them; this should take no more than 15 minutes.
Boiling: if you want to use chestnuts in salads and soups, creams and stuffing, it’s best to boil them. The total boiling time is about 20-25 minutes. Although is not absolutely necessary, cutting chestnuts in the same manner as described for roasting will help to boil them quicker and make the peeling easier. Boil them for about 10 minutes. Because chestnuts can easily fall apart during the peeling, it’s best to semi-boil them first, let the chestnuts cool in the water until you can handle them. Then peel the shells and the skin from the nuts, and boil them for an additional 10 minutes.
Combined method: most seasoned cooks call for the combined method, where the aim is to get the soft texture of the boiled chestnut and the sweetness of the roasted one. You get that by boiling the X-cut chestnuts for about 10 minutes and finishing them in the pre-heated oven, for another 10-15 minutes.
Foil cooking: another favored by many chefs method is to foil-cook chestnuts, in which case the aim is to imitate steaming-cooking. Measure out a square piece of aluminum foil and place, making sure you don’t put too many chestnuts. Bring up the sides of the foil and crimp the ends together, creating a foil bag. Leave a small hole at the top for airing. Add 1/4 cup of water to the foil bag. Place the foil bag and any other bags (depending on how many nuts you are roasting) on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.
No matter what method you choose to cook your chestnuts, peeling is always easier when nuts are still hot.
Using chestnuts in various dishes
Chestnuts could be used in sweet and savory dishes. In Italy and France they are often used as a substitute for potatoes and pasta. Whole or smashed nuts go very well together with brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, carrots and cabbage, as well as with almost all types of meats and poultry.
In the world of sweets an absolute classic are Mont Blanc (Chestnut and cream dessert) and Marron Glace (Candied Chestnuts). But then there is a countless number of biscuits, pies, cream and even ice creams with chestnuts.
A piece of history
In Europe, in the times before potatoes and corn, or in places where cereals would not grow well, if at all, the chestnut has been a staple food for thousands of years. Infinity of people lived on nothing else but this fruit chestnut. A bit later on, when corn were becoming wide spread it was still the chestnut, which almost exclusively nourished entire populations for half a year. Polenta was made with chestnut meal until corn arrived in the 16th century. And castagnaccio, a flat bread 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.
But it’s not only Europe where chestnuts where popular. In many countries from nowadays Turkey to Japan, chestnuts were known for many centuries. Historians say that in fact, chestnuts were introduced into Europe from Asia Minor, and made widely popular by Alexander the Great and the Romans, who planted chestnut trees across Europe while on their various campaigns.
Why are chestnuts good for you?
As the world of food and cooking is going back to basics and becomes more oriented towards the healthier choices, we tend to be not so pompous about the color or the texture of foods we consider to be good for us. What was once among the reasons chestnuts had fallen out of favor – the lack of gluten – is now seen as their advantage.
What’s more, chestnuts are a natural source of iron, magnesium, B vitamins, zinc and copper. Chestnuts are a surprisingly good source of fiber with around six to eight milligrams of insoluble fiber in a 100 gram serving. And, this might surprise you, chestnuts are incredibly rich in vitamin C, as rich as lemons.
Despite the wide spread belief that they’re calorie dense, chestnuts are lower in calories than other nuts. For example, while 100 grams of walnuts have around 700 calories, chestnuts have only 180.
But above all, chestnuts are just tasty… period.