Even though the tinsel has come off the tree, decorations are packed neatly in the attic and the menorah is wrapped safely in its soft cloth for storage until next year, there’s no need to give up eating chestnuts…those sensually yummy treats that we reserve only for the holidays.
Not simply holiday indulgences, chestnuts are the fruit of the magnificent chestnut tree, believed to have originated in the Mediterranean basin and Asia Minor. Eaten since ancient times, the chestnut is very nourishing and has been a staple food in several parts of the world, including the South of France, Italy, Corsica and North Africa. In France and Italy, chestnuts are served as an alternative side dish to potatoes and the flour from chestnuts is used in many Italian gluten-free recipes. With 40% of their calories coming from starch, chestnuts provide our bodies with great fuel. Low in fat and rich in vitamin C and B-6, folic acid, magnesium, copper and phosphorus, chestnuts are reputed to have antiseptic properties, prevent anemia and alleviate stomach ailments. Not an indulgence at all, the chestnut is an important ingredient in maintaining our health and vitality.
Related to the oak tree, chestnut trees can live for 500 years, usually growing to be 50 feet high and 3 feet wide with long, deciduous, dark green leaves. Single chestnut trees will produce fruit after 30 years, while chestnut trees growing close together will not produce fruit for 60 years or more.
Each chestnut contains a wrinkled, cream-colored kernel that is covered with a papery thin brown skin and is nestled in a hard, inedible reddish brown shell which is actually the pericarp of the chestnut. Recent cultivation of the chestnut has produced a larger, fleshier and tastier fruit, better suited for cooking and eating.
Chestnuts can be a challenge, as peeling requires patience. You must remove both the tough outer shell and the thin bitter papery skin. It’s easiest to peel these beauties while still warm, whether boiled, roasted or baked. To prevent bursting, carve a cross into the rounded side of each chestnut before cooking.
Choose chestnuts that are heavy for their size and have firm, shiny, taut shells. Dull, wrinkled, soft chestnuts are no longer fresh and should not be eaten. Store chestnuts in a cool dry place before cooking and after, cooked, peeled chestnuts can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days. They can be frozen for a few months after they are cooked and peeled.
Baked, boiled or roasted over an open fire, the delicate sweet flavor of chestnuts adds a wonderful flavor and creamy texture to soups, stuffing and salads. Ground into a flour (which is gluten free and be substituted 1 for 1 for flour in any recipe), pureed into puddings and pastry creams, chestnuts play a key role in signature recipes in Italy, Sardinia and Corsica.
While you can enjoy chestnuts in any number of recipes, the classic roasted chestnut is my favorite. Here is my sure-fire way to prepare these little treats.
1 pound fresh chestnuts
extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 375o and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Using a sharp paring knife, cut a small cross into the round side of each chestnut. Lightly oil the surface of each chestnut and arrange on lined baking sheet.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the crosses pop open and the nuts yield easily to pressure, splitting the skins. Dip your oily fingers in salt and eat the chestnuts.