I almost poisoned myself this fall, sampling some foraged Ohio buckeyes. Someone told me they were chestnuts. They looked and felt just like chestnuts, with their brown, lacquered shells. But they didn't taste like chestnuts. Luckily, those conkers (also known as horse chestnuts) I roasted were repellently bitter. Carry a buckeye, as my great-grandfather did, in your pocket for good luck. For eating, though, they are not.
I confused them with their sweet edible cousins and the cozy image in Nat King Cole's Christmas song of "chestnuts roasting on an open fire." However, many of us have never seen fresh chestnuts, much less roasted or even eaten them.
Once a staple of American life, towering chestnut canopies filled American forests. Durable "cradle to coffin" chestnut timber built our communities, and our cuisine (particularly that of the Cherokee Indians, who revered this "bread tree") relied on the starchy nutmeat. But by the mid-20th century, a fungal blight from Asia obliterated 4 billion of the indigenous East Coast trees. The American chestnut practically disappeared overnight.
Most fresh chestnuts now come from Italy, China or Korea. Seeing vendors roasting those imported chestnuts on the streets of New York City is a comforting sign of winter's arrival. Here in the Northwest, organic, local chestnuts are for sale at farmers markets and food co-ops through December. But almost nowhere can you buy that smaller, sweeter, more nutrient-dense native variety. The country's rare chestnut orchards mostly grow bigger, easier-to-peel Dunstan and Colossal varieties. Still, ecologists and growers are busy replanting new blight-resistant American hybrids on farms and in Appalachian forests.
Part of America's culinary heritage died with those fallen trees. Thanksgiving is about the only time Americans cook with chestnuts, in stuffing for the turkey or with Brussels sprouts. There are, however, more unusual preparations that could be part of any winter holiday feast or weeknight meal.
Try a chestnut soup, its earthy porcini puree encircled by Parmesan cream and topped with crisp celery and pear. Chestnuts also blend into velvety winter squash, pumpkin and root vegetable purees. Or saute them with peppery pancetta and sage served atop tagliatelle or tucked into ravioli. Even make your own noodles or spatzle with them.
For Hanukkah, which goes through Saturday, I made my husband chestnut flour latkes with pine nuts and dried cranberries. They couldn't compete with the traditional potato ones, but we loved Claudia Roden's Sephardic lamb with chestnuts, a fragrant yet simple stew. My husband savored its broth-soaked morsels, after first dismissing chestnuts for tasting like "dry plantains."
Laura McCandlish is an Oregon-based freelance writer. She contributes to The Oregonian's FOODday section and hosts a monthly food show on Portland radio station KBOO. She blogs at baltimoregon.com.
For Chinese New Year, chestnuts are an auspicious food. Stuff chestnuts and dates into sweet dumplings, stir-fry them with ginger and chicken or duck or boil them into the Korean chestnut rice called bam baap.
Somehow old-fashioned chestnut desserts such as meringue-topped Mont Blancs and Nesselrode pudding weren't on my radar. (Find a recipe for Nesselrode pudding on this page.) However, chestnuts can subtly star in any confection: creamed for crepe fillings, folded into gelatos, candied or in syrup, blended into chocolate tortes and cakes. I made a maple-chestnut ice cream, and with the leftover egg whites, whipped up some chewy flourless (and gluten-free) chestnut cookies. You'll appreciate such light treats after a button-bursting meal.
High in complex carbohydrates but, unlike other nuts, low in fat, chestnuts, from a cooking standpoint, behave more like grains or starchy vegetables. They're also quite perishable (check to make sure the raw ones aren't dried out or moldy). If you can't find fresh chestnuts, many orchards sell them online. Consult the Chestnut Growers of America map for one in your area. Chestnuts should be cured on the countertop for a few days, until they lose their sheen, becoming sweeter and easier to peel. Otherwise, store them in the refrigerator for about a month.
You can boil chestnuts or buy peeled ones frozen, vacuum-packed or canned at many high-end and ethnic groceries. But the Christmas song is right: Nothing compares to the aroma and the caramelized flavor of chestnuts roasted over an open fire. I experienced that magic recently, when my chef friend let me roast some in her restaurant's wood-fired earth oven. Cook up several pounds' worth, shell them and freeze what you don't use for later recipes.
Peeling off each cooked nut's hard shell and thin, bitter inner skin is somewhat painstaking work. Do it with company, and pop some hot ones in your mouth as you go. There's something visceral and almost meditative about such repetitive kitchen tasks. Roasting and peeling chestnuts is a welcome respite from the holiday frenzy. Just stay away from the buckeyes.
How To Cook Chestnuts
It's essential to pierce the shells before roasting — otherwise the chestnuts will explode in the oven. Blackening the nuts over a fire creates a nice smokiness. Covering the hot, unpeeled nuts with towels to steam for a bit makes them easier to peel.
With a serrated paring knife, score an "X" into the flat surface of the shell (try to avoid the nutmeat). Place in a shallow pan. Sprinkle liberally with water. Roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until you can remove the shells easily. If nuts become difficult to peel, reheat or cut in half and scoop out flesh with a spoon. Once shelled, chestnuts don't store well. Freeze what you don't intend to cook right away.
Chestnuts also can be roasted on the top of a wood stove, directly on a grill or, of course, over an open fire.
For mashes and purees, bring the nuts to a boil in lightly salted water. Turn off the heat after 3 or 4 minutes. Remove a few nuts at a time for peeling.
You can even microwave the nuts. Score 12 chestnuts with that "X," arrange them on the outer section of a paper plate and then microwave for 2 minutes.