Yes, Virginia, there really is a sweet and healthy holiday treat – the versatile chestnut! An ancient diet food consisting of 50 percent water, less than one percent fat, cholesterol and gluten free, and rich in vitamins C and E, chestnuts are closer to the brown rice family than any other nut or vegetable.For centuries a popular and inexpensive food that fed many, the chestnut has now become more of a seasonal delicacy with the demand outstripping supply. Since the American Chestnut blight killed over 3.5 billion trees over a 50 year period beginning in 1904, the American Chestnut is making a slow comeback with innovative breeding programs. Most chestnuts grown in the U.S. are hybrids of European and Asian species.
Where Can I Find Them?
Chestnuts, unlike other nuts, are very perishable. More like fruit than nuts, they begin to lose their high water content and dry out within a few hours after being picked. Purchasing pre-cooked/pre-peeled nuts simplifies the preparation process.
• Internet/Mail Order: Numerous American farms – many family-owned – and plantations now breed and produce wonderful hybrid chestnuts in several sizes. They ship crops as soon as picked, so get your holiday order in as soon as possible.
• Local: Fresh from local growers or at your grocery, health food, gourmet and specialty stores.
• Imports: Some imported chestnuts are often imported under poorly controlled conditions, but good fresh ones can be found in season in groceries, health food stores, and in gourmet and specialty shops. Canned and jarred varieties may be more tender – and certainly easier to prepare – but they do not compare to the fresh ones.
• Street Vendors: Roasted, especially in large cities where they are often cooked with sand in large woks. The wonderful aroma is very seductive, but the taste is frequently disappointing because these are often hanging out on heavily-trafficked street corners, thus the nuts can absorb gas fumes.
How Do I Select Them?
• Look for rich brown shell. The tan-colored end should be free of mold, the nut should be firm when grasped. If shell moves when you squeeze, it has already started to dry out. Test nuts by putting them into water; the fresh ones should sink. Inside meat should be cream colored/yellow, not dark. Discard nut meats with blue-streaking, black spots or a vinegary smell. If you find grocery store nuts under misters, they may be of poor quality, as they should not be stored in overly moist conditions.
• Packaged: Shelled chestnuts can be purchased jarred, canned, dried, frozen, or vacuum packed in a variety of forms, such as boiled, steamed, roasted, whole in syrup, candied/crystallized. Packaged chestnuts are usually of good quality, having been prepared when fresh.
• Famous luxury item, the French marron glace (candied chestnut) is prepared with a complicated process, which includes 16 different steps.
• Other forms: Chestnuts are made into flour, liquor/beer and the honey produced by bees residing in chestnut groves.
How Do I Store Them?
Fresh nuts should be stored in the refrigerator and used as soon as possible. Steam peeled, flash frozen nuts should be used soon after thawing because the fumigation required during the importation process kills the seed embryo, causing the nut to deteriorate much more quickly.
• Refrigerator: Placed in-shell chestnuts with a damp towel in a ventilated bag in the crisper of your refrigerator, the nuts will keep for a couple of weeks. To keep them for one or two months, store at a cooler temperature.
• Freezer: Cooked chestnuts can be frozen for about a year. Blanch, peel and vacuum pack them whole or prepare by chopping or pureeing first.
• Whatever your method of cooking fresh chestnuts, to prevent the nut from exploding, cut a large “X” on the flat side of the nut with a chestnut knife or a small serrated knife, making sure to cut all the way through the shell – or cut off the tips of the shells.
• Chestnuts rival beans in their ability to produce flatulence (ahem, gas).
• Dried chestnuts are sweeter and less floury in texture than fresh, roasted nuts, albeit not as flavorful.
• Use of a chestnut knife and chestnut roasting pan will greatly expedite your peeling and roasting.
• December is the prime month for fresh chestnuts