Chestnut trees once made up a significant portion of North America’s hardwood forests. The nuts were widely eaten by Native Americans and later by European immigrants, until the chestnut blight of the 1930s, which nearly eliminated the American chestnut tree. There has been a recent revival with the planting of blight resistant breeds from Europe or Asia. Chestnuts sold at Seward are organically grown on Chinese chestnut trees in Iowa by Bill Brookhiser and his family.
Technically a nut, chestnuts are low in oil (9% compared with walnuts at 83%), high in water content, and nutritionally resemble grains because of their high carbohydrate content. Select tight, shiny, dark brown nuts that feel heavy for their size. Fresh chestnuts should be stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag for around a week.
Chestnuts are an incredibly versatile nut. While many are familiar with roasted chestnuts, they may also be boiled, mashed, candied or pureed – and used in both savory and sweet applications.
When roasting score an “x” on side of the shells with a paring knife, soak in hot water for a few minutes, then roast for 15-20 minutes until you begin to see the shell peel back along the scored lines. Peel while warm and be sure to remove the thin inner skin. I love to roast up a few pockets full before heading out for a brisk autumn walk – peeling as I go to warm the hands and the belly.
To mash, puree, or sauté, score the flat side of the shell and simmer in water for 15 minutes. Remove both the outer shell and the inner skin. Return to the pan to simmer further until soft for a puree or mash – enjoy as a side on its own or mixed with potatoes, butter, and cream for a nutty variation on the traditional mash. To sauté, finish in a hot buttered pan with garlic and halved Brussels sprouts.
For a chestnut stuffing, either roast or boil 1 pound of chestnuts before removing the shell and inner skin. Then simmer in 2 cups of vegetable broth for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup of dried cranberries – let sit for 5 minutes. In a large saucepan, brown wedges of two large onions. In a large bowl combine the chestnut mixture with 10 cups cubed dry or toasted whole grain bread, the browned onions, chopped parsley, thyme, and sage. Add 1 ½ cups of broth and salt and pepper. Bake in a shallow baking dish at 325 degrees F for 45 minutes.