A hearty cluster of chestnuts in their burr ready to be processed and cooked fresh!
Having just wrapped up with Christmas — a holiday whose, perhaps, most historically famous song is subtitled Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire — I thought it would be fun to take a look at some new ways to incorporate chestnuts into your diet for the upcoming year. As I explained in a little chestnut post I wrote up last month, these miraculous nuts formed the foundation of American cuisine for hundreds of years before the North American chestnut blight of the early 20th Century rendered the American chestnut, Castanea dentata, virtually extinct.
While the chestnut has since vanished from the vast majority of American tables, its popularity and cultural significance have only grown amongst certain ethnic groups in the U.S. and, certainly, in its traditional appeal abroad. Not only are chestnuts a yummy way for you to try something new in your kitchen, but their consumption as a starch on a large scale has the potential to bring myriad benefits to the future of our food system.
Chestnuts are a miraculous staple crop that grows on trees, and, here in America, they are a lost birthright. Maybe, while trying some of these new chestnut foods, you’ll connect with a lost sense of place, of your ancestor’s land – wherever it happened to be in the world. The chestnut represents a globally-significant cultural artifact that has the power to bring people together in the consumption of a common meal. The best part about them is that we can connect to our past and one another anew with every scrumptious bite. Hopefully, this post will get some Americans back on the chestnut train, for it cuts a path of nourishing deliciousness back through time to those who brought us here.
An Introduction to Chestnut-Based Meals, and Why We Need More of Them
While I mention a variety of cuisines in the following article, these represent only a limited introduction to cooking with chestnuts and a very small sliver of the chestnut world. Wherever a chestnut tree can be found — and, trust me, they are plentiful around the globe — a new chestnut recipe can be discovered with a valuable and loving cultural context. I urge everyone to dive-in and start researching chestnut recipes on your own if any of this stuff interests you.
Additionally, due to the fact that chestnuts have come to be seen in the U.S. as more of a boutique product since their disappearance over one-hundred years ago, around ninety percent of chestnuts consumed in America today are imported. That being said, there are a burgeoning number of domestic growers who are making healthy, local nuts more and more of a reality each day. One example is Breadtree Farms in the Northeast. However, the list goes on and on.
If you are interested in incorporating more chestnuts into your annual diet, I would recommend doing some research on growers in your area before going to the grocery store. Trust me, it’s worth it, and you may be surprised by what you find. Nuts that come from closer taste better, and you’ll be supporting your loving, local farmers! While you can usually place orders year-round, chestnuts generally fall off the tree sometime between the last week of September and the first few weeks of October. So, it is best to plan recipes with fresh nuts for autumn, and then grind your remaining stock up into chestnut flour to be stored year-round for the making of cakes, breads, and pastries.
Okay! Enough talk. Let’s get into some yummies.
Simple and Delicious: American
While roasted and boiled chestnuts are, perhaps, the two most ubiquitous ways of preparing our wonderful ingredient, I’m classifying them here as “American” cuisine in order to give us a base. To bring us back to our roots in their simplest form. While some cooked and peeled chestnuts are perfect for a snack and/or appetizer, they are also great to prepare in bulk so that you can throw them into any dish for an added punch of starch and subtle sweetness. While cooking for some friends around Halloween, I threw some pre-cooked and peeled chestnuts into my favorite chickpea pot pie recipe, and it was a big hit. This is but one example of the chestnut’s versatility in the kitchen. Perhaps a more classic application would be throwing some pre-cooked nuts into a chestnut stuffing on Thanksgiving, one of the last vestiges of the ingredient in our mainstream American culinary culture.
In order to brush up on your basics and get back in touch with how your great-great-great-great grandparents did it, check out this all-purpose guide to cooking chestnuts simply, and this minimalist recipe for “Farmhouse Roasted Chestnuts.” If these two websites float your boat, then make your way over to this guide to five easy chestnut dishes that overlap nicely with our theme in this section.
"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."
Nourishing Main Dishes: Chinese
Chestnuts are one of the most important foods in China. They are a core element of the very fabric of Chinese cuisine, and are often paired with a protein – like Chicken, Pork, or Mushroom – or simply eaten braised and mixed with rice. Chestnuts add a delicious element of starch to Chinese dishes that seem right at home alongside the “classic” flavors we’ve come to know in a more globalized Chinese cuisine which, oftentimes, doesn’t resemble food from China very much at all. So, if you’re looking to create more authentic Chinese dishes at home, throw some chestnuts in!
Interestingly enough, many of the chestnut trees grown in the U.S. today are individuals from Chinese hybrid genetics, so you’ll even be bringing the nut back to its origin, in a way, with these four yummy recipes for: Braised Chicken with Chestnut, Soy-Braised Fall Mushrooms With Chestnuts, Stir-Fried Chestnuts and Chinese Cabbage, and Chinese Fried Chestnuts With Honey.
Scrumptious Breads, Both Savory and Sweet: Corsican (and French in General)
Corsica, a mountainous Mediterranean island just south of mainland Europe, could be considered the chestnut cultural hub of the entire world. For thousands of years, Corsica has been a land replete with complicated socio-political conflict, war, and strife. However, one of its few constants has been the chestnut, or castagnetu, as it is called in the island’s native language. Castagnetu culture is so ubiquitous in Corsica that residents are still harvesting from trees that are over six-hundred years old. A traditional Corsican wedding feast contains twenty-two dishes made with chestnuts, and almost every house on the island has an attic room specifically designated for the dry-roasting and storage of the staple crop.
For more background information on the fascinating history of chestnuts in Corsica, see this groundbreaking article on anti-colonialism in Corsican forestry. For a stunning modern look at the castagnetu, you can watch this beautiful video done by Woodlanders, an independent crew doing short-films on agroforestry projects around the world! (Skip to 8:00 to see an example of a typical Corsican chestnut-roasting room.)
Due to the fact that Corsicans rely on chestnuts as a source of starch year-round, their cuisine hosts a number of creative breads and sweets. Channel your inner castagnetu with these gorgeous chestnut crepes, this unique bread recipe right out of the Corsican oven, and the classic jewel of the island: the chestnut beignet. If none of these recipes float your boat, then perhaps you can do a little Corsican-Scottish-American fusion with a scrumptious pancake breakfast!
Desserts: From the Czech Republic, Italy, and Wherever the Heck Cookies Come From
Finally, we’ve made it to the sweetest way to make use of our lovely staple food: dessert. And, due to the fact that ground chestnut flour is the easiest way to store chestnuts for annual supply, there’s a great variety of creative ways to make use of chestnuts in baking recipes from around the world.
In the Czech Republic and the area that once was Czechoslovakia, one of the most authentic comfort foods around is a Chestnut Cake With Chocolate Whipped Cream Frosting. Czech cuisine also includes a versatile Sweet Chestnut Puree that can be used in everything from a simple light dessert topped with fresh cream to a gorgeous bowl of oatmeal!
Italy also has its own brand of indulgent chestnut sweets, exemplified by this authentic Tuscan Castagnaccio, a hearty chestnut cake that sports a number of other Mediterranean tree nuts, like pine nuts and walnut kernels, to top off its illustrious texture and flavor.
And, if all of this seems like just a little too much work, then stick with something in your comfort zone – that, indeed, may well have come right out of your grandmother’s cookbook – with these easy and lovely chestnut chocolate chip cookies that are sure to put a smile on the face of anyone lucky enough to enjoy them.
Wrap-Up: Get Cooking!
No matter what you decide to cook from this list or elsewhere, all I can do is urge you to get some chestnuts into your kitchen and, soon after that, your tummy. You won’t be sorry; they’re full of warmth and heritage. Everyone has a chestnut story, and I encourage you to add many more chapters to yours this New Year.
Jonny Malks is a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him on Facebook and read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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