Fresh Ideas for Chestnuts
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire is a popular line in a Christmas song, but may not be the best way to enjoy them for eating or using as an ingredient.
Chestnuts originated over 2,000 years ago in the mountainous regions of Apennine woodlands in Italy. These large trees lived for hundreds of years and provide a large amount of food for villagers who would gather the nuts, grind them into flour and use it to make cakes and bread.
According to Italian history the chestnut was used to feed the legions of armies in the Roman Empire and its flour was the primary ingredient in polenta until corn arrived in the 16th century. Castagnaccio, a flatbread of chestnut flour baked on an oiled stone, was a common staple.
The gluten-free flour was used to bake dense loaves of bread, and was resistance to spoilage. It served as a staple during hard times that was also nutritious. The starchy nut is high in carbohydrates and has nearly as much vitamin C as a lemon.
In modern times the chestnut is most commonly used as a holiday nut that goes in sweet and savory recipes. Once it is peeled, chestnuts can go into stuffing, cakes, cookies, pies and pasta fillings.
It has a texture that is meatier and softer than most nuts and is easily chopped into pieces or ground into a paste.
In its whole form chestnuts can be purchased in the shell in the produce department at FRESH by Brookshire's or peeled and packaged in a vacuum pack on the store shelves. Many chestnut recipes call for chestnut flour which is difficult to find and not available in the Tyler area.
Chestnuts emit a sweet fragrance when roasting and can be roasted in a cast iron pan, on a baking sheet in the oven, or on the grill. Most cookbooks suggest soaking or simmering the chestnuts in water before roasting to soften the shell.
It is also necessary to cut an x through the skin of the chestnut on the flat side of the nut before roasting to prevent the nut from exploding.
I had difficulties roasting the chestnuts and was unable to peel back their double layer of shell and outer skin. I enlisted the help of Chef Simon Webster of Sabor a Pasion Country House & Bistro in Palestine. Chef Webster was born in England and owned a restaurant in Derbyshire for several years before moving across the pond to Texas.
Purchasing a bag of chestnuts from street vendors who are roasting them over an open fire is as popular in England as it is in New York City or Italy. Considering his background I thought he might be able to shed some light on my chestnut peeling difficulties.
Webster agreed that roasting was not the best way to utilize the nut for eating but rather to warm your hands while strolling down a cold, yet beautiful London street at Christmastime.
His foolproof way of peeling chestnuts is to bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the chestnuts into the water three at a time. Let simmer for three to four minutes. Remove from the water and while still hot, but cool enough to handle, carefully cut off the pointed end of the chestnut. Then the remaining shell should peel back easily.
If it does not peel easily put it back in the water for another minute. Rub off the outer skin of the nut and then it can be used however you like. You can also toss the peeled chestnut with some olive oil, salt and pepper and place in a 400 degree oven for 5 minutes to impart some of the traditional roasted flavor.
If you have additional questions about chestnuts Chef Webster can be reached at 903-729-9500 or at www.saborapasion.com.
FRESH Ideas with Christine Gardner can be seen every Tuesday at 5 p.m. on KYTX-CBS19 and the next day at tylerpaper.com or on facebook.com at Christine Gardner Tyler Paper Food. For questions email firstname.lastname@example.org
Butternut Squash & Chestnut Risotto
6 cups low-salt chicken broth
8 thyme sprigs
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1/2 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 cup chopped chestnuts (roasted or packaged)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a saucepan warm the broth with the chopped thyme. In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and butternut squash and sauté until softened. Add the rice and stir to combine. Add the wine and stir until absorbed. Begin adding the broth 1 cup at a time, continuously stirring until completely absorbed. Repeat process with more broth until the rice is tender. Should take about 20 minutes. You may not need all of the broth. Stir in the chestnuts. Add a final 1/2 cup of broth to keep the mixture a bit loose. Stir in the cheese. Season with salt and pepper and serve.