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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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It's fall, baby! This means pumpkins, various squash, root vegetables, and chestnuts will be fresh, available, and fairly inexpensive. Chestnuts? Aren't those for Christmas or something? Not anymore.

In 1904, Asian trees imported into the U.S. for ornamental purposes carried a blight that wiped out 25 percent of the forests from Maine south to Georgia and West to Illinois. And even though the trees carrying the fungus all died, the fungus still exists, preventing non-hardy varieties of chestnut trees from growing. The nuts were very popular in Europe, Italy, and several parts of Asia. But the expense of shipping foreign nuts has mostly removed them from our cooking repertoire, relegating them to a Christmas-time treat.

But their popularity has gone far to keep alive many poor European populations. Chestnut flour is credited with keeping almost the entire population of Croatia alive during World War II. And areas along the Alps in Switzerland and Italy are known as "chestnut civilzations" and the trees are referred to as "bread trees."

A fungus-resistant tree variety is becoming more common in the U.S., making it easier and cheaper to get chestnuts. They first become available at the end of September and should remain in most stores until February. If they rattle when you shake them it means that they have dried out and should be avoided. If they have mold on the shells or seem very wet to the touch, they're expelling their water and are probably rotten on the inside.

Chestnuts are, obviously, nuts, so be aware of allergic reactions. Other than that, they're a great food. They have 54 calories per ounce, are high in complex carbohydrates and virtually free of fat, the amount of protein they provide is similar to that of eggs and they are gluten free. Oh, and they taste slightly sweet, sort of like corn.

There is some work required to rid them of their outer shells and inner skins, which are bitter and should be completely removed before use in cooking, but this isn't hard and takes no special tools.

Roasted Chestnuts
You'll need one tablespoon of oil for each pound of chestnuts.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Hold each chestnut securely with the flat side down and make an X in the shell. They are a bit tough at this point so be careful of those fingers. Place a skillet or pan with an open-proof handle over a burner on medium high heat and add the oil. Add your Xed chestnuts and stir them till they begin to sizzle. Remove from the burner and then place it in your oven. Roast them for about 30 minutes and the shells and skins should be easily removed. They will be easier to shell while they're warm, so if they get cold just pop them back in for a few minutes.

And eat.

If the idea of snacking on plain roasted chestnuts doesn't make your tummy rumble, there are other options. But you're going to have to know how to store them. They have a lot of water in them so they can go bad quickly unless you store them correctly. If you're going to cook them right after buying them you can keep them in a plastic bag, untied for a couple of days. Once they are cooked or if you plan on leaving them raw for longer than a couple days, put them in a tightly sealed bowl and put them in the coldest part of your fridge (away from the door). They'll last about four weeks this way, or you could put them in zipper bags and freeze them for for just about forever. One pound of chestnuts will get you about a cup of coarsely chopped chestnuts.

So, what else can you do with them?

Since they're high in protein they're a good substitute for meat, especially if you're bored with tofu and other soy products. You could substitute roasted chestnuts for pine nuts when you make pesto, which will provide a richer taste to your pesto.

According to "The Chestnut Cookbook," you could also chop up 1/2 cup of chestnuts and toss them with 2 apples, 2 celery stalks, a small thinly sliced fennel bulb, 1/2 cup of cranberries and pour on a citrus dressing. This would be great to serve with Brie and bread as an appetizer or light meal.

Citrus dressing:
1 tablespoon honey
juice and zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
pinch of salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients into a bowl and whisk with a fork until the mixture turns opaque. Pour over the salad and serve immediately.

You could also sauté some of the chopped chestnuts with a little olive oil, half a small yellow onion and some garlic. Stir in two or three eggs to your oven-safe skillet, sprinkle some parmesan or other cheese over the top and then bake it at 325 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the top and sides brown. Great for breakfast and dinner, or as an impressive morning-after brunch.

If you get several pounds of chestnuts and spend one afternoon roasting and peeling them while you're watching a movie or the game, you'll be able to place the peeled chestnuts into individual containers and just substitute them into your normal quick fix dishes like macaroni and cheese, canned soup, stir-fry, mixed with butter or olive oil and poured over vegetables, or in pasta dishes. Finely chopped chestnuts are often added to stuffings, for which there are hundreds of recipes available with a simple Google search. Flour or canned chestnut paste can also be used in desserts.

So, since chestnuts are good for you, high in flavor, very versatile, and easy, I recommend adding them to your grocery list.

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dave / October 7, 2003 9:53 AM

I've had varying luck over the years with the process of shelling these delightful nuggets. I think it has to do with the quality of the chestnuts from the market. Do you have any recommendations on what the raw material should should look like (plump, large, small, etc.) at the time of purchase?

Cinnamon / October 7, 2003 10:23 AM

We had mixed success also. Pick chestnuts that are shiny, smooth and hard. Peel while they're warm. Since some may open before others, begin checking the nuts after they've been baking for 15 minutes and remove those whose shells have started to peel back. Escaping steam is what is causing this. If you're just going to be using them chopped, you can cut them in half and take a small spoon to scoop out the nutmeat. To help keep unpeeled nuts warm after you take them out of the oven you can keep them in a towel or cover them.

dce / October 7, 2003 4:42 PM

Them chestnuts has GOTS to be good.

You've been waiting all day for that, haven't you?


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