Here we go again…..it seems I am now over my “crostata” phase and have moved on to focus on two of my fall favorites, chestnuts and fall squash. I have made so many new dishes with these two delicious ingredients lately that I am waiting for my husband to beg me to stop but so far he seems to be enjoying all my new creations. Chestnuts really are quite interesting with an amazingly long history, and are really thought to be one of the first foods to be eaten by man.
Having twice as much starch as potatoes do, throughout history they were eaten by the poor to sustain themselves through difficult times. The chestnut tree now found across Europe is said to have originally come from Greece. While several species of the chestnut tree do exist worldwide, the majority of the commercial harvest consists of sweet chestnuts or Castanea sativa, the only species that is native to Europe. Imported Italian chestnuts flood North American markets in November and December, making them a popular holiday snack for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Italians love their chestnuts; roasting them, boiling them, pureeing them to use in sweets, and finally when fresh chestnuts are no longer available they dry them and grind them into flour. It is often said, that when the leaves fall, so do the chestnuts, and although it may vary depending on weather, generally fresh chestnuts are available from October through to January. Recently here in Umbria, small towns and villages across the region are throwing celebrations for the beloved chestnut and every local street market I have visited lately has tables piled high with fresh, shiny brown chestnuts.
What To Choose When Buying Chestnuts: Choose raw chestnuts those with a shiny, tight, dark brown skin and that feel firm and are heavy for their size and should give slightly when the sides are pressed. You can also buy sweetened or unsweetened chestnut purée, and even pre-cooked, vacuum-packed chestnuts. Avoid any nuts which are soft, off-colored, cracked or moldy. Fresh chestnuts should not be eaten raw, as the tannic acid in them can cause stomach upset.
How To Cook at Home: If buying fresh chestnuts, you will want to either roast them or boil them before you use them. Fire roasting continues to be the traditional method of preparation, but modern cooks will find that oven roasting is a safe, convenient and practical alternative to using a chestnut roaster. I use cooked chestnuts in my soups, sauteed with roasted vegetables, or pureed in soups and desserts.
To Peel Chestnuts: I have found through trial and error after peeling a LOT of chestnuts recently, that instead of cutting an X into the flat side of a chestnut as stated by most resources, if you use a really sharp knife and cut the X at the bottom where the pellicle is attached both the outer hard shell and the inner skin come off much easier. Next, simmer in a pan of water for 7 to 8 minutes. Then peel the chestnuts taking just a few out of the water at a time, taking care to remove both the outer shell which comes off quite easily, as well as the inner brown membrane, or pellicle, which takes a little more time and patience. It’s much more simple to do the latter when they’re still hot, so work in small batches. If you find the inner membrane particularly stubborn, simply pop the chestnuts back into the hot water for a few minutes, or use a sharp paring knife to help remove the skin. See my step by step photo guide for peeling chestnuts HERE!
Once peeled, chestnuts can be chopped, added to stuffings, or sauteed until tender to use in pasta sauces. You can also purée them for soups and sauces. If you want to puree your chestnuts, simmer the peeled chestnuts for 25 minutes and then purée in the food processor. You can also sweeten the purée and use to fill meringues or to add to cake mixes.
To Fully Roast Chestnuts: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (204 degrees C). Using a strong, sharp paring knife, cut an ‘X’ into the flat side of each chestnut shell. This allows the steam to escape during roasting, preventing the chestnuts from bursting and will also make them easier to peel when cooked. Place chestnuts in a single layer on a baking pan. Roast for 25 minutes, stirring halfway through. Chestnuts will be roasted when shells begin to peel back. Remove chestnuts from oven and let stand for five minutes to become cool enough to handle, and then peel the shells and skin away from the nuts. One pound of raw chestnuts will yield approximately one cup peeled, roasted chestnuts.
How To Store: Fresh chestnuts dry out very quickly so keep in a sealed container in the fridge. I have read that you can also store chestnuts in an open mesh bag hanging like you would onions in a cool, dry cellar for a month or two.
To Make Sweet Chestnut Purée Recipe For Desserts
(Makes About 2 Cups)
2 Cups Chestnuts, Roasted and Peeled
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Cups Water
In a saucepan, combine chestnuts, sugar and water, bringing the liquid to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes or until tender. Most of the liquid will have been absorbed by the chestnuts or have evaporated by this time. Strain chestnuts, reserving sugar syrup, and transfer to a food processor and blend until smooth. Add in syrup slowly until desired consistency is obtained. Allow to cool before refrigerating or using in your recipe. Store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze for up to 6 months.
Deborah Mele 2011