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Sweet Chestnut

nutsNothing smells quite as autumnal as the delicious scent of roasted chestnuts. It is a curious, warming, slightly sweetish aroma that immediately conjures up images of bonfires and harvest feasts. When the days are beginning to get shorter and one can detect that crisp little nip in the air that heralds the coming of the cold season, when the leaves are turning bright in color and are spreading a thick carpet on the ground, when the earth smells musky and moist from the rain, chestnut season is upon us. Sweet chestnuts, which must not be confused with horse chestnuts, belong to the family of the Fagaceae, which comprises numerous species of trees with edible nuts, such as oak and beech. Sweet chestnuts are at home in a temperate climate while shunning excessively cold and wet habitats. In Europe their range extends as far north as southern England, though they are most comfortable in the Mediterranean climate, where they form quite extensive forests. In North America the native species (Castanea dentata) has been largely replaced by the Chinese species of Chestnuts, which was imported in the early 1900s. Unfortunately the imported trees carried a disease, a virulent blight which quickly spread and tragically wiped out almost the entire population of native chestnuts.

sweet chestnut flower (Castanea sativa)Sweet chestnuts grow into beautiful tall trees, with elegant large, but quite narrow serrated leaves, which develop before the flowers appear. The flowers grow as long golden yellow catkins, which are reminiscent of arboreal fireworks, especially when seen en masse covering the canopy of native woodlands. The nuts develop in early autumn. They are protected by a very prickly shell. Each shell contains 2 or three nutlets, beautiful dark brown nuts, shaped a bit like pixie-hats, with a white, pointed tip.

Commercial chestnuts are derived from a cultivated variety, which yields one large nut per shell, rather than two or three as in the wild species. Most commercial growing is done in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, where chestnuts are still well established on the autumn menu.

sweet chestnutsWhen collecting chestnuts the temptation is almost irresistable to jump on the very first that fall to the ground in September. However, the very first are usually not yet fully ripe and usually not worth the bother. Better to wait another month. By October the nuts that hit the ground have filled in and are deep reddish brown all over, except for the very tip. The shells should be a little bit open, but not too much. Now one has to hurry, otherwise the forest folk, the squirrels and wild boars will get the better of them. It is advisable to wear protective gloves, as the shells are really prickly. The easiest way to remove them is to gently step on them and roll them around a little bit in the dirt until the shell comes off by itself. Check the nuts for little holes as these indicate the presence of worms. Worms tend to be more of a problem after heavy rains or when the nuts have been lying on the ground for too long.

The most tedious part of chestnut preparation is not the collecting, but the shelling. The nuts are covered by an inner membrane, which adheres to all the nooks and crannies of the inner fruit. There are several methods of removing this membrane, and the method employed depends to some extend on what one wants to do with the nuts. All methods require that each nut is cut on the bottom surface, usually in the shape of a cross. Then they can be roasted without exploding, or boiled briefly, which eases the process of removing the inner skin.

To preserve chestnuts for long-term storage it is best to dry them quickly in the oven so as to avoid moulding. Dried chestnuts need to soak in water before the can be used again. In France a traditional method of curing the nuts was to spread them on the floor of a harvest hut and smoke them for a period of time. These smoked nuts could be stored for up to a year.

Pan/Oven Method

Cut a cross on the flat side of each nut and place in a heavy skillet. Add about ½ a teaspoon of butter per cup of chestnuts and roast on a medium heat until the butter is melted. Put the pan in the oven at 475 degrees and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and take off the shells with a small sharp knife. It is still a tedious process but if done right the inner skins will adhere to the outer shells, thus making the process of shelling much easier.

Chestnuts are a great wild food. They are very nutritious. Unlike most nuts, they are rich in both carbohydrates and proteins, but contain very little fat and no cholesterol. This distinct composition has earned them their nick names ‘l’arbre a pain’ in French, meaning ‘the tree of bread’ or the English equivalent, ‘the grain that grows on trees’. Their flavour and consistency is unique in that it lends itself very well to both sweet and savoury dishes. A favourite is chestnut stuffing, but they can also be used in soups, nutloaves, cookies or desserts or can be ground into nut flour.

recipes (1K)

Roasted Chestnuts

One of the most delicious and simple ways to enjoy chestnuts is to simply roast them either in the oven or on an open fire. In southern Europe special chestnut roasting pans are employed for this purpose, though they are not strictly necessary. These pans are a basically cast iron pans with holes on the bottom. But it is just as simple to roast the chestnuts in a traditional pan. The important thing to remember is to slice a cross on the broad side of each nut so that they don't explode. Place in a pan and shake over a medium flame for about 15 min. The flavour is completely transformed by the process of roasting. Even when processing for other dishes, such as soups or stuffing, roasting them prior to further processing is highly recommended. Roasted chestnuts taste great straight from the pan, or can be served with blue cheese and wine.

Stuffing

Minced chestnuts are excellent as stuffing for birds, such as pheasants or goose. Roast onions and garlic, add boiled and minced chestnuts and rice along with chopped celery sticks and apples. Stir an egg into the mixture and season to taste, e.g. salt, thyme, sage, rosemary, mugwort. Add wholemeal flour, oats or wholemeal breadcrumbs until the mixture has the right consistency, neither too dry, nor too wet. Judge the amounts by the size of the bird.

Chestnut Loaf

The above described stuffing can also be adjusted to make a nice chestnut loaf. The chestnuts can be mixed with other nuts, e.g. peanuts or walnuts. Mix roughly half and half nuts and rice, add grated or finely chopped vegetables, e.g. zucchinis, mushrooms, onions and garlic either sautéed or raw, add an egg and flour until everything sticks together nicely. Season to taste. Fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary and a touch of sage are nice. Grease a breadpan and fill with the mixtures. Bake in the oven at about 375 degrees until a crust forms on the top and the dough no longer sticks when pricked with a wooden stick. Serve with steamed vegetables and mushroom sauce.

From http://members.iinet.net.au/~cdibley/chestrec.html

Glazed Chestnuts And Winter Vegetables

Cut kumara into large chunks. Cut parsnip in half lengthwise. Combine all ingredients in a baking dish; bake, uncovered in hot oven (220°C) about 45 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and browned lightly. Turn gently halfway through cooking. Serves 6 to 8.

Here is a recipe from Mountain View Chestnut Farm http://members.ozemail.com.au/~jncasey/recipes.html

Savoury Chestnut Croquettes

Ingredients

Method

In a heavy saucepan cook the onion and the garlic in the butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until the onion is softened, add the chestnuts, the broth, the cayenne, the cloves, and salt and pepper to taste, and simmer the mixture, covered, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes or until the chestnuts are very tender. In a food processor purée the mixture until it is smooth, add the parsley and the fresh breadcrumbs, and process the mixture until is it combined well. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, let it cool, and chill it, covered, for at least 6 hours or overnight. Have ready in one bowl the egg wash and in another bowl the dry breadcrumbs combined with the almonds. Form the chestnut mixture by heaping teaspoons into balls, dip the balls, in egg wash, and roll them in the almond mixture. In a deep fryer heat 2 inches of the oil until hot, in it fry the balls in batches for 2 minutes, or until they are golden brown, and transfer them as they are fried to paper towels to drain. Can be served with puréed cranberry sauce for dipping.

Curried Chestnut Soup

Sautée the onions with the carrots until the onions are soft, add zucchini, and apple. Continue to sautée and stir. Add mushrooms. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of vegetable stock powder and a teaspoon of curry powder and a pinch of cinnamon into the vegetables and continue to stir. Add one pint of water. Bring to the boil and add the roasted minced chestnuts. Stir continuously so as to avoid any of the ingredients sticking to the bottom. Squeeze the garlic into the soup. Add 1 pint of milk and simmer until all the vegetables are cooked. Season to taste with extra salt, coriander, cumin and chillies. Adjust liquid level so the soup is creamy but not too thick. A tiny touch of honey can blend the flavours perfectly.

Baked Apples With Chestnut Stuffing

Roast the chestnuts as described above, shell and mince. Mix with raisins, sultanas, oats and honey. Remove the apple core and fill the hole with the stuffing. Place on cookie sheet and bake in the oven until the apples are soft. Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate Chestnut Mousse

Chestnuts combined with cocoa and amaretto make a perfect ending for a festive dinner.(adapted from http://www.delmarvelouschestnuts.com/recipe.htm)

Shell and peel chestnuts as described above. Boil until tender. Drain and add sugar or honey, cocoa and Amaretto. Blend in a food processor until smooth. Beat whipping cream until stiff. Fold into chestnut puree. Divide among dessert glasses. Chill. Decorate with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Serves 10.

The mousse can also be used as a cake filling.

Chestnut links:

J Hill Craddock's Chestnut Links http://www.utc.edu/Faculty/Hill-Craddock/chestnutlinks.html

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