Yes, we sing of these beauties every holiday season. With apologies to Mel Tormé, we usually just blindly follow the words and melody without much thought to the actual chestnut. I would wager that very few of our readers have actually roasted a chestnut. I myself found a sack in a grocery store and tried to make the classic song come true with poor results. I blamed it on faulty nuts. I am certain I was the problem, but I only had one shot at this. Next time I will buy three sacks — one to screw up, one to tweak and one to perfect.
So in this review I decided to learn a little more about what is surprisingly a healthy nut and possibly expose why it is not very common to practice what we preach, er, sing, rather. So take a few notes and maybe you and I can crank a little life back into a tradition of roasting those chestnuts on an open fire.
My first bag of chestnuts is not to be forgotten. I remember the little bag made of red mesh holding a couple handfuls of the odd nuts. They were dark, fairly dense and hard as rocks. The smooth shell was often shiny, and they were pretty large. These were round and at least an inch or more in diameter with one side a little flat. I could imagine a few of these have historically made their way into the leather pouch of a slingshot.
The chestnut we are speaking of comes from the genus Castanea and excludes the similar looking but poisonous horse chestnut and the star of Chinese cuisine, the water chestnut, which is actually not a nut at all, but an aquatic vegetable (genus Eleocharis). No, the chestnuts we are examining today actually grow on trees and can be cracked open like any other nut to reveal meaty edible parts.
These beauties can be found growing in North America, and once were extremely common to our homeland (Castanea dentate). It was an early 20th century blight that took out most of our crop, and the mighty chestnut has struggled to return to such popularity since, making a slight comeback here and there. This blight paved the way for the United States to become the chief importer of chestnuts from the European Union (Castanea sativa, or sweet chestnut). China ranks highest among chestnut export (Castanea mollissima), but their biggest client is Japan.
Chestnuts are amazingly healthy when compared to other nuts. They are high in starch, low in fat and calories and are a good source of dietary fiber at 8.1g per 100g and can help lower bad LDL cholesterol and raise the good HDL cholesterol. Very rich in the all-important vitamin C as well as folates, the health benefits of chestnuts are very similar to those of green leafy vegetables.
Actually it is wise to treat these guys as such.
If you are lucky enough to have a choice, always go for the large fresh nuts. It just so happens that the peak season is December, but you may find them from October through March. Yes, choosing the right chestnut is important. Though they are nuts, they can spoil rather quickly like vegetables. If you manage to get your hands on fresh ones store them in a Ziploc bag or other sealable container in your refrigerator, and expect a couple of week’s worth of shelf life.
Roasting the nuts is an art itself. There are many pans on the market for fire roasting that involve holes on the bottom and a long handle for safety purposes. You could make your own makeshift roaster by poking holes in a long sheet of aluminum foil and use a rack over coals. But let’s be honest, even the Velvet Fog himself might cheat and take advantage of the modern oven.
The temperature you are looking for is about 350 degrees, easily achieved in your kitchen. For best results we must score the chestnuts. Some recommend an X mark on the flatter surface of the nut, others say cut through the surface almost all the way around the circumference. Soak the scored nuts in warm water to help them steam during the cooking process.
If you are using an oven, a cookie sheet or rimmed pan will do fine. Cook for about a half an hour giving the pan a nice shake every now and then to ensure even heat distribution. Once the cooking is done, cover the hot nuts with a heavy towel, or even wrap them and allow them to cool down enough to handle. The place you scored will open up and peeling your chestnuts will be a cinch.
I think I’ll do better next time if I can only find a fresh crop.
Now sing it with me, boys and girls. “Although it’s been said many times many ways, merry Christmas…meet the Flintstones…merry Christmas…to you.”
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