Chestnuts trees have grown across China and Japan since ancient times. The Greeks brought them to Europe from Asia Minor and later they spread across the continent with the Romans.
For many Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chestnuts were an important staple food and Italians used them to make polenta before the introduction of maize from the New World.
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.
After picking, chestnuts slowly dry out and shrivel. Choose nuts that are heavy for their size with shiny, smooth shells. Give a squeeze to check that the nut inside is plump and full.
Freshly picked chestnuts start off quite crisp and become more tender and chewy over the following days or weeks before deteriorating to a dry and floury texture. Storage at a cool temperature (e.g. the refrigerator) slows the aging process.
Peeling chestnuts is a task to plan for when there's something good on the radio; attempting the job when you're in a hurry is likely to result in swearing and a long-standing hatred of a very fine nut.
Cut slits (or crosses) in the shells and part-cook the nuts either by roasting for 15 minutes or boiling for 20 minutes. The shells will now be fairly simple to break open. Removing the brown membrane on the nut is a fiddlier task (easier performed while the nuts are warm) and you will need to break open some nuts to get at the skin in the crevices.
Shelled and peeled, chestnuts can then be cooked according to recipe requirements (for mashing or pureeing they should have the consistency of cooked potatoes -- test with a skewer).
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.
Chestnuts are more farinaceous (floury) than other nuts. Instead of being ground for oil, like almonds, hazel and walnuts, chestnuts are dried and ground into flour. This flour with its distinctive flavor is used in breads, cakes, biscuits and pastries, particularly in southern France and Italy. It’s gluten-free, so very useful for celiacs. Purchase flour in small amounts as it can easily spoil, and keep the sealed bag in the fridge after opening.
Chestnuts can also be light and sweet: cooked, pureed and beaten with vanilla syrup to an airy texture that's mounded and covered in cream in the French/Italian dessert, Mont Blanc/Montebianco. You can buy ready prepared sweetened chestnut puree in tins or jars. It makes a great standby for quick impressive puddings and for sandwiching a sponge cake (with or without the addition of melted chocolate, dark or white), or just for spreading over hot buttered toast.
Unsweetened chestnut puree makes a good base for soups, sauces and stews.
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.
Ham from pigs reared on a diet rich in chestnuts is highly valued in many areas of France, Spain, Italy and particularly Corsica (home to an annual chestnut festival in December).
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