That Old Chestnut
Making a comeback in the skillet
By Jan Leitschuh
Hot, roasted chestnuts have probably not been part of your holiday treat repertoire, despite the ubiquitous Christmas reminder in song. I would have been the same, except I first tasted chestnuts in Wisconsin, as my mother, a nostalgic World War II bride, roasted some for us kids in our living room fireplace. This was a time (cough) before gas logs.
The nuts were tasty, sweet and surprisingly soft, like a baked potato, very good with salt and the heat of the fire warming our faces. But chestnuts are neither a common nor everyday produce item, so the cold-weather treat drifted to the back burner.
The idea of chestnuts resurfaced again when my local Sandhills Farm to Table Co-op attended the international Slow Food Festival “Terre Madre” in Torino, Italy, in the fall of 2010. There we saw pushcart vendors roasting chestnuts on the streets, dumping the hot nuts into paper funnels for munching on the go or on the nearest park bench. Chestnut flour-based pastries and candied marron glacés graced bakery shop windows. Cafés featured a hot bowl of zuppa di castagne, sometimes with a grappa kicker. Late October was the season of the chestnut harvest.
As our bus drove us through the Italian countryside to our lodgings an hour south, neat farms began to sport tidy little groves of trees. Over 90 percent of Italy’s chestnuts are produced in Tuscany, and this little northern countryside had some lovely examples.
Edible chestnuts grow worldwide, including in North Carolina’s Piedmont and Sandhills regions. My first exposure to Tar Heel chestnuts came when the late environmentally active couple, Joyce and Len Tufts, gifted a generous bounty of homegrown Chinese chestnuts for Sandhills Farm to Table box subscribers. The nuts were as good as I remembered. I used them in a chestnut-sage stuffing.
This fall, local resident Ellen Marcus brought chestnuts back onto my radar. She and her family recently moved onto a property with four well-established chestnut trees bordering their front yard. It was a love-hate relationship from the start.
“The trees are perfectly climbable, picnic-worthy on a nice carpet of lush centipede grass, rich green foliage giving way to gold in autumn,” she says. “The tree’s beauty is mesmerizing and inviting.” Sounds heavenly, except for one factor Marcus hadn’t counted on: the spiny husks of the nuts that tumble each fall.
“The sharp chestnut spines can pierce soft-soled shoes,” she said. “ I can’t imagine why anyone would plant a chestnut in the front yard. The husks are mean and unforgiving, making the work of getting at the sweet meat all the more rewarding.”
And it is work. “The nuts have to be collected before the worms drill in,” she says. “They have to be refrigerated for storage. The nuts have to be scored and roasted to get them to peel easily. It almost gets to the point where you want to say, ‘Forget it, get an ax!’”
But then she relents. “The tree is reminiscent of the native chinquapin I grew up with as a kid. Chestnuts are so versatile, and make delicious cream soups, great flour, crispy toppings, and meaty stuffings.”
Chestnuts were much loved in ancient times. In fact, the Greeks and Romans used to transport an incredible amount of chestnuts in the stowage areas of ships to sell later. Before the chestnut blight in the early 20th century, the stunning American chestnut tree dominated forests of the eastern United States, blanketing the Appalachian mountains with their blossoms in the spring.
Known as the “Redwood of the East,” the American tree often reached towering heights of 150 feet. Experts estimate that at one time, one in every four hardwood trees in the East was an American chestnut. An important food source for natives, pioneers and wildlife, the American chestnut is making a small but determined comeback thanks to backcrossing efforts to introduce blight resistance.
According to the website “The Art of Manliness,” (cough, cough), one roasts chestnuts over an open fire, just as the song suggests. “Yes, you can roast chestnuts in the oven. But what would be the fun in that? A man never misses a chance to build a fire and cook over it,” the website suggests.
Instructions as follows:
To roast your chestnuts, you’ll need a pan that you can put into the fire. Long-handled popcorn or chestnut roasters make the ideal vessels for open fire chestnut roasting, as they allow you to roast the nuts without burning your face off. And their lids let you shake the chestnuts around for even roasting, instead of having to turn them over yourself or losing a few when flipping them in a lid-less pan.
If you don’t have a long-handled roaster, you can get by with a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or some other pan. Just be careful not to burn yourself. If you have an old beat-up skillet, you can turn it into a bona fide chestnut roaster by drilling 30 or so holes in the bottom.
If you don’t have a chestnut roaster or a skillet, you can also use a fireplace shovel. And I suppose you could even try sticking them individually on skewers . . . if you’re the patient type.
You can buy chestnuts at some grocery stores, but you may want to call ahead to make sure they have them. While dozens of chestnut varieties exist, most people roast Castagne and Marroni chestnuts at the holidays. Castagne are more common, while the Marroni are a more expensive specialty. The nut of the Marroni is sweeter and plumper, and it peels away from the skin more easily.
When choosing your chestnuts, look for those that are plump, smooth, shiny, and blemish-free. Moldy chestnuts are a common problem, so squeeze and shake the chestnut to see if the nut has shriveled up and pulled away from the shell.
Keep in mind that the larger the chestnut, the longer it will take to roast. Pick chestnuts that are fairly uniform in size and will thus be done at the same time.
Chestnuts are traditionally scored, their brown skin sliced to allow steam to escape when roasted. Simply take a sharp knife and cut an “X” into the flat side of each chestnut. Once your chestnuts are clean, dry and scored, roast over a nice bed of hot embers, shaking the pan to prevent burning. The brown exterior is peeled off after roasting and the hot nuts dipped in salt.
Chestnut trees prefer good drainage — avoid standing water and low-lying areas. To produce fruit, trees will also need lots of sunlight and plenty of regular watering to become established. Fall and winter are great times to add a couple of chestnut trees to your property, for wildlife and personal consumption. Revival, Carolina and Willamette are three suggested varieties that do well in North Carolina. All require pollination from another variety.
Plant at least two cultivars of the same type to ensure optimal size and production, and probably best away from where children and dogs might play, given the spiny husks. Most Chinese and hybrid chestnuts are highly resistant to the chestnut blight fungus. Many people prefer the hybrid chestnut cultivars, citing superior quality over the straight Chinese cultivars. Management is low.
If you are lucky enough to have your own chestnut tree, sort nuts for mold. Either use fresh nuts immediately or store unpeeled chestnuts in the refrigerator. To keep your chestnuts in good shape for a little longer, place them in a plastic bag and stick a few holes in the bag for airflow. Chestnuts should then keep for two or three weeks. Place them in the fridge’s crisper or vegetable storage bin.
Store freshly purchased or picked, unpeeled chestnuts at room temperature for up to one week only. Keep them in a well-ventilated and dry place.
In case you want to go beyond roasted chestnuts this holiday season, just add chocolate:
1 1/4 pound chestnuts
5 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
4 ounces butter
4 ounces sugar
Cook the chestnuts in salted water, peel and then process or sieve them. Melt the chocolate and add to the still warm chestnuts together with the sugar and butter.
Stir for some time. Line a rectangular mold with greaseproof paper and grease with butter, lay in the mixture, level off and cover with more greaseproof paper.
Leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Serve with cream on the side.
Jan Leitschuh is a gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative in Moore County.