Chestnuts 101

The late Mel Torme co-wrote one of the most popular holiday songs ever; even if you don’t recognize it by its name, “The Christmas Song,” you surely recognize those famous lyrics: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping on your nose…”

Though the song is commonplace, those quintessential Christmas chestnuts roasting are where? A traditional food throughout America, Europe and Asia, chestnuts were a staple source of nutrition for thousands of years serving as a primary food source for Native Americans and early Americans. A devastating forty-year chestnut blight that began in the States in the early 1900’s, wiped out approximately 4 billion chestnut trees that have not come close to rebounding.

Chestnuts are starchy; they’re more comparable to wheat than other nuts and contain twice as much starch as potatoes. Chestnuts are the only nuts that contain vitamin C, with one nut supplying a whopping 40 percent of the recommended daily allowance.

Like the song goes, roasting chestnuts on an open fire is definitely one delicious way to eat them. The raw nut is astringent and roasting makes them more palatable. To roast chestnuts, make an “x” with a knife in the flat side of the skin and roast in a hot oven at 450 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, but an open fireplace is even better. Once the nuts have cooled off—but not too cool, they’re best warm—you can crack the shells off easily with your hands and enjoy. The flavor is sweet and doughy, the texture slightly crumbly, the experience, pure winter goodness.

Chestnuts make a great addition to stuffing. They can be roasted alongside vegetables or meats. They lend themselves equally well to sweet and savory dishes. Glazed chestnuts are quite popular, and they can even be dried and milled into flour for use in baking, added to soups, stews and sauces.

Unfortunately the U.S. has never recovered from the loss of the chestnut blight, and most of our supply nowadays comes from Europe, usually Italy. If you can find a local grower, more power to you. Definitely support their efforts, and you can help restore this important native food by planting chestnut trees.

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Photo by SimonDeanMedia courtesy of Creative Commons