Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

I recently visited the Old CiderPress Farm in New Hampshire and had a great conversation with owners Angie & Marius Hauri.

In addition to 60 varieties of apples, they have a magnificent row of Chestnut trees which produce up to 250 pounds per mature tree per season. We bought several pounds of fresh chestnuts, which led us to ask just how do you create "chestnuts roasting on an open fire?" (We already figured out the jack frost nipping at your nose)

First - what is a chestnut? It's not a Water Chestnut. Those are the edible corm of the Chinese Water Sedge (Eleocharis Duclis). It's not a Horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which has bitter/poisonous nuts. (The Horse-chestnut is the spreading chestnut tree mentioned in Longfellow's The Village Blacksmith)

The chestnut we roast over open fires is the edible, starchy seed of Castanea species, native to Europe, Asia and North American. It has a long history of being a staple food in all these these cultures. When I researched the chestnut, I found its nutritional characteristics to be fascinating. One cup of peeled fresh chestnuts contains:

Calories 285
Protein 6.3g
Fat 1.7g
Carbohydrates 74g
Water 66
Fiber 2.6g

Unlike many other nuts, the chestnut is a low fat nut. It's closer to a grain than a nut. For thousands of years it's been ground into flour and used as a vegetable, thickener, and flavor enhancer for pastas.

Roasting chestnuts is a great tradition and I've had bags of hot chestnuts in Tokyo/Kyoto, Taipei, Bejing, London, Paris, and New York. Here's how to do it from The Chestnut Cookbook by Annie Bhagwandin:

To roast a chestnut, you must first pierce the shell to allow hot air to escape while cooking. Use a sharp paring knife to cut a slash through shell but not into the nut. The larger the cut, the easier the nut will be to peel. Heat the nuts by shaking them in a dry skillet over medium heat for 20 minutes. Alternatively, microwave them on a paper plate for 4 minutes. In an over place them on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with water and bake at 400F for 15-20 minutes.

In my experience, baking is best.

Once the nuts are roasted, slice the shells and peel them while they are hot. Hot roasted chestnuts are remarkable. If making a meal of chestnuts, plan on 1/3 pound per person.

For Thanksgiving, we made fresh bread stuffing with pecans and roasted chestnuts. An all vegan dish that was remarkable! You can buy your own online.
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