French Chestnuts

French Chestnuts - They are simply the best


At this time in December, we are at the height of the chestnut season, since Chestnuts are harvested from October through March. Chestnuts are tasty, and Pablo Neruda said it right in "Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground," "falling / offers its sealed-in gifts, / the hidden sweetness / that grew in secret / amid birds and leaves..."

Chestnut trees are tall, between sixty to seventy-five feet. The Chestnut seed is enveloped in burr. When the burrs turn earthy brown and crack open, the reddish-brown nuts inside them jump to the ground. The burrs of a tree usually open all at the same time, and it is not unusual to find the ground under a tree to be covered in chestnuts in a day. If some of the chestnuts fall with their burr intact, hitting them with a stick can do the trick of separating the nuts.

Among all the nuts, Chestnuts contain the least amount of fat and the highest amount of starch. As a matter of fact, Chestnuts have twice as much starch as potatoes; that is, they are very high in complex carbohydrates. That must have been one of the reasons for the pilgrims to feast on them when they came to America. Chestnuts were very popular with the Americans until 1904 when an Asian fungus killed the Chestnut trees. Most of the Chestnuts that now appear in the supermarkets in the USA are imported from Italy.

Italians use Chestnuts widely in their recipes, sometimes steeping them in wine. In Tuscany, it is traditional to eat Chestnuts on Saint Simon's Day, and during the Feast of Saint Martin, Chestnuts are offered to the poor. Italians also use Chestnut flour in desserts, but the flour is difficult to keep after about three weeks. No wonder the phrases "old Chestnut" and "hoary old Chestnut" were coined to mean a stale joke or story.

The best way to cook Chestnuts is to boil them in their skins, preserving their taste. Some people slit the shells before cooking, but that could cause them to lose some of their flavor. Before roasting or grilling a Chestnut, however, a slit has to be made, because the nut with the accumulated pressure of the heat inside it can explode.

We do not have to roast "Chestnuts on an open fire" while pining for Christmas to bring back old family traditions. Chestnuts can be cooked in many other ways, and they can work in almost any recipe. They can become the stuffing for the Christmas or Thanksgiving turkey or added to casseroles and side dishes with sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. They can be cooked as soufflés, blended in soups, or baked in breads. A chestnut cake is a delight to serve to a most distinguished guest.

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