Delicacy of a Lost Time: What do you do with chestnuts besides roast them over an open fire?
LOCAVORE’S DELIGHT: The Series # 41. Follow us as we explore the bounty of our region’s farms.
When one hears the word chestnut, it’s difficult not to associate it with the nostalgic Mel Tormé Christmas tune (“The Christmas Song”), and its famous line, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” In 1904, the once prevalent crop was nearly wiped out completely by a blight, which infected several Asian chestnut trees that were planted in Long Island. Over the next 40 years, around 40 billion chestnut trees in America were decimated by the fast-spreading deadly fungus. Since then the nut has mostly flown under the radar in the U.S, usually just making a festive appearance among New York City street vendors during the holidays, and sometimes popping up in stuffing. In France, chestnuts are commonly used in desserts, and Marrons Glacés (candied chestnuts) and Creme de Marrons (chestnut paste, used in the chestnut mousse dessert, Mont Blanc). Both are popular treats, especially at Christmastime.
Over the years since the blight, organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation have employed countless hours of research and experimentation, working to restore and preserve the American chestnut population. They have also helped prevent future destruction by discovering how to grow blight-resistant crops. The crucial work of these organizations has helped create a resurgence, making this crop sustainable again in the U.S.
Last year we were approached by a guy who told me he had a chestnut grove in Lexington, North Carolina. He offered to sell us some chestnuts and we were intimidated because we had never done anything with chestnuts before. Eager to delve into something new and experiment, we took him up on his offer and bought some chestnuts and chestnut flour. We first tried incorporating chestnut flour into the cornbread that we put in the mushroom stuffing we made for Thanksgiving. We found that the chestnut flour provided a nice earthiness to the dish that played well with the mushrooms. This year we’re excited to work with some folks who are so local we’re practically neighbors, getting some chestnuts and chestnut flour from High Rock Farm. Established in 1807 in Gibsonville, N.C, current owner Richard Teague planted the farm’s first ever chestnut tree in 1991. Now High Rock is the leading chestnut orchard in the mid-Atlantic, with over 500 thriving chestnut trees. Through the farm you can buy chestnut trees, fresh chestnuts, dried chestnut kernels, and stone-ground chestnut flour, which is naturally gluten-free.
Flounder with Sherry Chestnut Compound Butter
One of the first chestnut recipes we tried at the restaurant was a sherry chestnut compound butter out of roasted chestnuts, which is fantastic melted on top of flounder.
For the butter:
- 1 pound salted butter
- 5 fl oz sherry
- 1/3 cup chopped roasted chestnuts
Allow butter to come to room temperature, and then combine with remaining ingredients in a mixer. Using a rubber spatula, remove mixture to a sheet of wax paper and roll into a log. Place in freezer until set. Slice off a coin as needed. Makes 1 pound.
For the flounder:
- 1 boneless portion of skin-on flounder
- 1 fl oz canola oil
- 1 coin of Sherry Chestnut Butter
- salt and pepper
Season flounder with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle oil into a sauté pan and place flounder flesh side down to cook until crisp. Flip and finish in a moderately warmed oven. Place on a serving platter and top with one coin of Sherry Chestnut Butter. Makes 1 serving.
What to do with those chestnuts?
- Look for chestnuts with smooth, glossy brown shells; wrinkled or mottled shells, or ones with holes usually indicate a moldy or rotten nut.
- Chestnuts should be stored in a cool place and soaking them in cold water for about 20 hours immediately post-harvest can help preserve them without refrigeration.
- Shelled and cooked chestnuts should be covered and stored in the refrigerator, lasting up to about four days.
- Chestnuts can be dried and sold as kernels, which can then be re-hydrated and incorporated in savory dishes or puréed into soups or used in desserts.
- Roast ‘e’m: Chestnuts can be shelled and eaten raw, but they are at their best when roasted. First, score the nut using a sharp knife and making an X (about 1/8-inch deep), to prevent it from expanding and exploding. Roast the chestnuts on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven, for about 35 minutes, shaking the pan a few times throughout. While the chestnuts are still hot (be careful not to burn yourself), peel them and discard their shells.
- Fry ‘e’m: You can also deep-fry chestnuts. Just make sure to peel them first.
- Bake ‘e’m in a cake: Chestnut flour can be found at most specialty grocery stores and works great in cakes or pancakes.
Chestnut-Pumpkin Spice Cakes
- 3 tbsp softened butter
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg
- ½ cup puréed pumpkin (run through processor)
- ¼ cup buttermilk
- 2/3 cup chestnut flour
- ¾ tsp allspice
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 pinch ground ginger
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp salt
Cream butter and sugar in mixer with paddle attachment. Add egg. Combine pumpkin and buttermilk. Combine all dry ingredients. Rotate adding pumpkin mix and dry mix to the sugar mix, ending with dry mix. Do not over mix. Ladle mixture on to hot griddle and cook until golden on both sides. Makes: 32 cakes
Fun facts about chestnuts:
- Chestnut trees are of the genus Castanea, and come from the same family as Oak and Beech trees.
- Chestnuts are covered by an outer spiny shell, and then a brown papery membrane known as a pellicle, which protects the fruit’s flesh. The pellicle’s properties are very astringent, so it is important that it is removed before the chestnut is consumed.
- There are four main species of the nut: American, European, Chinese and Japanese.
- Nowadays most chestnuts are imported from China, Japan, Italy and Spain. They are harvested from October to March, with December being the peak month.
- In Europe, Asia and Africa, chestnuts are often used as a potato substitute, as they contain twice the amount of starch as potatoes. Their textures are also very similar.
- Chestnuts are the only nut that contain Vitamin C, although that amount decreases by 40 percent after they’ve been subjected to heat.