Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that chestnuts protected against poisons, dog bites and dysentery.
History also suggests some European peasants relied almost solely upon chestnuts for food during much of the year. Likewise, chestnuts were part of daily life in early America, as a food source for people and livestock, with the tree providing much-needed wood. But in the early 1900s, chestnut blight led to the near-extinction of the American chestnut tree.
The starchy, edible chestnut is encased in a prickly burr that usually splits open when the nut ripens and falls to the ground. Chestnuts appear in markets October through December, perfect timing for holiday cooking. Because of its high water content, the chestnut is lower in calories and fat than other nuts. It is unique in nutrient makeup as well as an excellent source of vitamn C and a good source of vitamin B6, copper, manganese and fiber.
"When chestnuts were ripe, I laid up half a bushel for winter." --Henry David Thoreau, Walden
All nuts are rich sources of antioxidants, with chestnuts, pecans and walnuts topping the list. In a recent analysis, researchers discovered that Portuguese chestnuts contained significant amounts of polyphenols, antioxidants linked to the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
When selecting chestnuts, look for those with a rich, brown, hard outer shell - free of soft spots, mold and deterioration. Keep in mind that chestnuts are more perishable than other nuts; they will last about three months if refrigerated.
Though you can peel chestnuts like an apple and eat them raw, the sweet flavor won't shine through unless they are cooked. Roasting over an open fire is perhaps the most celebrated way to enjoy chestnuts. But when that isn't practical, try roasting halved nuts (shell on) in the oven for about 15 minutes at 300 degrees. Or "roast" in the microwave by placing halved nuts cut-side down on paper plates and microwaving for two to three minutes. You can also boil or steam chestnuts for about 10 to 15 minutes. No matter how you cook them, however, be sure to puncture the shell or halve them before roasting to avoid an explosion. Once cooked, dip a fork into the nut half to retrieve the kernel.
For something different, be on the lookout for chestnut flour, a favorite European pastry flour for generations, because of its natural sweetness. The characteristic flavor of chestnuts marries well with fall dishes like squash, Brussels sprouts, stuffing and soup. Chestnuts can also accent desserts like cookies, pastries, fruit pies and cakes.
Nutrition - 2 ounces chestnuts, about 5 raw, peeled equals:
0.2 milligrams Vitamin B6
33 micrograms folate
22 milligrams vitamin C
0.2 milligrams copper
0.2 millgrams manganese
271 milligrams potassium
3.4 grams fiber
Chestnut Carrot Soup Recipe
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium leeks (with 2-inches of green), sliced
1 pound carrots (six large), peeled, sliced
1 pound chestnuts, raw, peeled, halved
1-1/2 teaspoon peeled, grated fresh ginger
3 cans (14 ounce) low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons orange zest (grated peel)
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks; saute until slightly soft, about 3 minutes. Add carrots, chestnuts and ginger; saute until vegetables are just soft, about 10 minutes. Add the broth, cover partially and simmer until vegetables are completely soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat; cool slightly.
In blender or processor, puree in batches. Return soup to pan; reheat over medium heat, stirring in orange juice and peel. Serve warm, garnished with orange slice. Recipe makes 11, 1-cup servings. Freezes well.
Nutrition information per serving: 164 calories, 4 grams protein, 5 grams fat, 27 grams carbohydrates, 27 milligrams vitamin C, 45 micrograms folate, 0.27 milligrams copper, 477 milligrams potassium, 66 milligrams sodium and 4 grams fiber.
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