It’s the time of the year to go nuts about chestnuts

Catherine-KaufmanBy Catharine Kaufman

The Nat King Cole Christmas tune chimes in my head, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and I go gaga over these holiday delights. Shiny, mahogany gems are piled high in mounds in the grocery produce aisles, cans of delicate puree and jars of whole, peeled kernels line the shelves and dominate seasonal displays. Here’s a little chestnut primer to help you get the best out of these scrumptious nuggets while they’re still good and plenty.

Caveman Candy

Chestnuts are possibly one of the oldest food sources, dating back to the Flintstone era. Biologically known as the Castanea sativa, the chestnut tree originally came to Europe from Greece. European immigrants imported the tree to America, while today Spartan groves exist in California and the Pacific Northwest after the chestnut population was devastated by a blight at the turn of the last century. Most chestnuts are imported from Japan, China, Spain, Italy and France where the latter call these precious jewels marrons.

The Shell Game

Chestnut flowers form into spiny burrs with a shiny brown shell encapsulating usually a pair or trio of creamy white, soft kernels. When buying chestnuts, the outer spiky husk is shed, leaving the thin-skin brownish covering, a stubborn shell that is difficult to remove from the starchy nut.

To make your life easier, blanch or cook the chestnuts first. You will need a sharp pointed knife to score the flat side of the nut with an “X” or a horizontal cut. Place nuts in cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for three minutes. Keep them immersed in the hot water, peeling one at a time. Your chestnuts are recipe-ready.

One word of chestnut warning: Do not eat raw or even partially cooked, as the high tannic acid will likely cause digestive problems. So boil or roast completely before indulging.

Pick a Winner

Fresh chestnuts are at their prime in December. Make sure they are glossy and glabrous without nicks, cuts or blemishes. Feel their heft, and choose solid, heavy ones that are not cracked or shriveled. Shake them, and if you hear a rattling sound, or feel it rock ‘n’ rolling, discard it. To keep them from drying out, store in a cool, dry place for one week, or in a storage bag in the fridge for up to one month.

A Chestnut a Day

Atypical of other nuts and seeds, chestnuts have a fairly low fat content and are low in calories, although rife with starch on a par with sweet potatoes, spuds, corn and plantains. They contain a mother lode of phyto-nutrients, minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber. Rich in anti-oxidant Vitamin C, chestnuts have immune-boosting oomph.

Packed with folates they are a great pregnancy food for the health of the growing fetus, and for red blood cell production. An excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, chestnuts have been found to lower total as well as bad cholesterol levels. Endowed with B-complex vitamins, they put the skids on stress, are abundant in iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and zinc, and as a final boon — are gluten-free, a holiday treat for the gluten-sensitive and Celiac sufferers.

chestnutsFrom Soup to Chestnuts

Chestnuts are as divine in savory dishes as sweet ones. In Europe and Asia, due to the high starch content the kernels are used as a spud substitute. Chestnuts go solo braised, roasted, steamed or grilled.

To warm the cockles of your heart, whip up a chestnut amaretto soup with toasted almonds, or a chestnut butternut squash bisque. For a riff on Italian dishes, try chestnut risotto or ravioli.

Stuff your holiday bird with chestnut and Granny Smith stuffing or chestnut and wild rice. Do a Mediterranean chestnut and lamb stew with pomegranates. For some elegant sides, chestnut stuffed acorn squash, chestnut soufflé with brandy drizzle, or chestnuts with dried prunes and apricots in Madeira sauce.

For your just desserts, chestnut tiramisu or cheesecake, a chestnut bourbon torte, or bittersweet chocolate chestnut mousse.

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