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Worth the Effort: Chestnuts' hard shells reveal delicious, flavorful meat.

Treasure Chest

Winter is the time to rediscover chestnuts

By Sara Bir

Supposedly, dreaming of splitting or opening a chestnut indicates you will solve a mystery or a problem that has been plaguing you. This makes sense--cracking the nut and all--but who really dreams about chestnuts anymore? The closest most Americas--who, per capita, eat approximately one nut per person per year--get to chestnuts is when singing the opening line of "The Christmas Song."

OK, hands up here: How many of us have had a chestnut roasted on an open fire? Hmm. How about a roasted chestnut, period? It sounds like an archaic thing to do, a pastime that long ago went the way of churning our own butter or starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

We're shortchanging ourselves by relegating the chestnut to cozy holiday nostalgia and maybe a guest-starring role in a stuffing or two. Chestnuts are blissfully versatile, easily grown and harvested, and much more compelling in taste than you would ever suspect. In the mouth, they crumble with a slowly dissolving chalky richness, warm and mysterious and ancient. Chestnuts date back to prehistoric times, and there's still something unplaceable and vital in eating them, knowing that their misshapen nutmeats sustained the marches of Roman armies and quelled the hunger biting at peasants' stomachs.

For centuries chestnuts were a major staple for multiple cultures. The rural mountainous region of Southern Europe, in the Italian and Swiss Alps, was for several hundred years called the "Chestnut Civilization." In Roman times, the chestnut was the basis of a vital economy in the Mediterranean basin. In areas where other crops refused to grow, the chestnut crop provided a dependable source of sustenance throughout the winter.

Because of its starchy composition (twice that of potatoes), the chestnut was referred to as the "bread tree." Dried chestnuts can be milled into flour, and the nuts themselves are treated as potatoes in dishes of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Native Americans too looked to chestnuts as a dietary staple. Up until a mere century ago, Native American chestnut trees were so prolific along the eastern United States that it was said a squirrel could travel from New York to Georgia without ever touching the ground.

After the colonization of America, chestnut trees provided settlers with high-quality lumber, as well as tannins used in leather processing. People cured hams made from pigs fattened with chestnuts, and tons of nuts were packed and shipped by train to large cities for street vendors to roast during the holidays.

In 1904 a grove of Asian chestnut trees was planted on Long Island. The trees carried a lethal fungus which the native chestnut trees had no resistance to, and over the next 50 years what was called the chestnut blight wiped out nearly the entire American chestnut population.

The majority of the chestnut trees currently found in the United States are of native European stock, and we are way down there in terms of global production. Today the world's top chestnut producers are China, Turkey, Korea, Italy, and Japan. Sebastopol's Green Valley Chestnut Ranch's 4,000-pound harvest this season is already long sold-out through mail orders placed on the Internet.

The most simple and immediate way to become acquainted with chestnuts is to eat a few, roasted and straight from the skin. As far as late-night snacking goes, a peeled, hot chestnut is a much more sensual experience than, say, the cloyingly accessible caramel goop of a pint of Ben & Jerry's.

Coerced out of its leathery peel, a chestnut's flesh emerges wrinkled and naked as a newborn, each with its own unique network of ridges and folds. When one slips out of its shell whole and unblemished, it is a fleeting and perfect thrill.

Raw chestnuts are virtually impossible to peel--which is just as well, because raw chestnuts are also virtually impossible to eat, thanks to a high level of tannic acid that would prompt a mighty tummy ache. They must be cooked first. In an exciting and dangerous touch, chestnuts will explode (!) during cooking if their tough outer skin is not punctured. There are specialized knives with short, curved, beaklike blades made just for this purpose, though any sharp paring knife will do just as well. Lightly make incisions in an X pattern on the flat side of the nut, trying to avoid cutting into the flesh of the nut itself.

To roast chestnuts over a fire, place the scored nuts in a foil pie tin punched with holes, sprinkle with water, and place directly on hot coals. Shake a few times during the roasting to prevent charring. When a fire is not roaring and ready for nuts, any oven will work. Roast the nuts at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or so, until the scored corners of the skin curl back, and peel while still hot.

To boil, place the scored nuts in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, then peel. (This method is best suited for chestnuts destined for a purée, since the nutmeats tend to fall apart when simmered.) A food mill or ricer is the best way to purée chestnuts; since their level of starch is so high, chestnuts can become gluey when mangled in a food processor.

As chestnuts are not the most popular item in the produce aisle, it can be challenging to locate fresh ones. Look for chestnuts that are dark brown and shiny--dull skin may be a sign of mold--with no surface blemishes or pinholes (which indicate worms). The nuts should feel firm and compact, with no air pockets between the skin and the flesh.

Because of their high water content, the nuts can spoil quickly and should be stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag until used. When fresh chestnuts are not available, look for canned or frozen nuts, which are already peeled and thus more convenient--though if half the fun of the nut is getting to the meat, what's the point?

Very low in fat and high in starch and water content, chestnuts are an anomaly among nuts and can be treated as either a starch or a vegetable in both sweet and savory dishes. Because of their mealy-smooth texture and mild sweetness, chestnuts are as equally at home in savory preparations as in desserts. Puréed chestnuts can be incorporated into soups, mashed potatoes, sauces, and pastry creams. Whole chestnuts enliven salads, cabbage, and rice dishes.

Here in the States, chestnuts are typically spotted as additions to stuffing. A recipe: make your favorite traditional-type dressing (traditional as in not zucchini bread with avocado and dried fish), and add a handful of chopped, roasted chestnuts. The end.

Italians in particular continue to embrace the chestnut, making specialties such as fresh pasta with chestnut flour (stracci di castagne) and chestnut polenta. In Corsica, France, the Pietra Brewery even brews an amber beer with chestnut flour, yielding a strong yet delicate beer with minimal bitterness.

Chestnuts compose the bulk of a dessert beloved on the Italian and French side of the Alps. Montebianco (the Italian version) and Mont Blanc (the French) consist of a sweetened chestnut purée piled into a crest and then capped generously with swirls of whipped cream, creating a smaller version of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. Basically, the dessert is a very whimsical freeform pile of stuff. Sometimes it's decorated with tiny paper skiers.

Even though we Americans have an affinity for instant-pudding-and Cool-Whip-based confections with names like Dirt Pudding, it's tough to imagine Mont Blanc seizing our country by storm. Maybe we could sell molds of presidents' faces especially for this purpose and rename it Mount Rushmore.

John Evelyn, a 17th-century gardener and diarist, wrote that chestnuts are "delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks." Lusty, masculine, a delicacy for princes, and yet the bread of the peasants! The chestnut season is still at hand, and plenty of time remains to rediscover one of the great, forgotten lusty foods.

Cabbage with Chestnuts

Try this with pork or roasted chicken.
12 peeled, roasted chestnuts
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced
1/2 cabbage, cored and shredded
1 tbsp. butter
Melt the butter in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and apple, and cook until softened. Add cabbage, allow to wilt for a minute, and cover; cook for about 8 minutes. Add chestnuts and cook until heated through. Season with salt, pepper, and sugar to taste.

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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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