We think of chestnuts as a quintessential American holiday food, but chestnut flour was made many centuries ago by ancient Greeks, and later by the Romans, who used chestnut meal in place of cornmeal to make polenta. Wild chestnuts have been a staple among the poor in other European countries too. Oh well, at least we gave them turkey and sweet potatoes.
Chestnuts aren’t just for homey dishes like stuffing, however. Restaurant chefs around the country are using chestnuts in surprising ways. at Le Castagne (Italian for “the chestnut”) in Philadelphia, chef Brian Wilson makes a stunningly rich pasta dish with chestnuts, hazelnuts, ungodly amounts of cream and a dusting of cocoa powder. Wilson also makes gnocchi with chestnuts instead of potatoes, and a crespelle stuffed with mascarpone and sweet chestnut puree, topped with chestnut honey and berries for dessert.
Restaurants don’t have to have the word chestnut in their name to use chestnuts inventively. At Joel Robuchon restaurant in Las Vegas, chef Claude Le-Tohic serves a cappuccino of chestnuts with seared foie gras. At Sona in Los Angeles, chef David Myers roasts lobster with chestnuts, a dish he learned from Robuchon.
The American chestnut, Castanea dentate, existed here for thousands of years, while the European chestnut (C.sativa) was planted by immigrants only a few centuries ago. Both became susceptible to a chestnut blight and were hybridized with Chinese (C.mollissima) and Japanese (C.crenata) chestnuts.
The vast majority of chestnuts we see during in the fall are imported, mostly from Italy, but increasingly from Asia. (China is the world’s largest producer.) However, Dennis Fairchild, a professor at Michigan State University, has been working with Chestnut Growers Inc., a Michigan cooperative, to develop a Japanese-European cultivar that he believes is superior to what we get from Italy. “First of all, I don’t think Italy sends us their best. We’re not a chestnut eating country,” Fairchild says. (Only about 20 percent of Americans have ever eaten a chestnut.) “Second, they have to cross the sea in a ship.”
Freshness is important with chestnuts because they’re not really nuts. “It’s more like a soft-shelled fruit,” Fairchild says. Thus, it needs to be refrigerated, which rarely happens in supermarkets.
In addition to freshness, Fairchild says, Michigan-grown chestnuts are sweeter than those from Italy. And though they are harder to peel, Fairchild believes that the future of Japanese-European chestnuts lies in selling them peeled–which the cooperative does with a machine from Italy—and frozen. “Freezing doesn’t harm chestnuts,” he says. “Chestnuts cure when they come off the tree. We freeze them when they get sweet.” Fairchild has frozen chestnuts for two years without ill effects. I didn’t have any problem with the frozen Italian chestnuts I used in several dishes, including the soup below.
In addition to freezing, chestnuts are also vacuum packed in jars; canned in water; and put in syrup (marron en glacé) for desserts. Dried chestnuts can be reconstituted in water by bringing them to a boil, then letting them sit for about eight hours, or by soaking them in the refrigerator for 24 to 36 hours. Unlike other processed chestnuts, frozen and dried chestnuts are raw.
While convenience has its place, there is nothing like a fresh chestnut. Fresh chestnuts should be firm with a slight give to pressure. Store them in the coldest part of the refrigerator in a ventilated polybag, and buy them that way too. Unfortunately, peeling fresh chestnuts can be a chore. You can usually get through the outer shell fine, but then there is an inner parchment or pellicle that often refuses to go quietly.
I asked four chefs what their foolproof method of peeling chestnuts was and I got three answers, though every chef first scored the chestnuts with an X through the shell’s flat side using a sharp paring knife. Wilson and Roy Breiman, executive chef at the Salish Lodge and Spa in Snoqualmie, Wash., both put the chestnuts, scored side up, in a 375 to 425-degree oven until the skin pops open and the chestnut aroma is pronounced, 7 to 12 minutes. Keep the chestnuts warm in a turned-off oven while you peel them. A clean pair of thin gardening gloves will protect your hands.
Myers learned his foolproof method while working in France. Cover the chestnuts in water in a large saucepan and bring them to a quick simmer. Turn off the heat and peel while still warm. French-born Le-Tohic puts chestnuts in a deep fryer for 10 seconds until the skin pops open. Then he peels them as soon as they are cool enough to handle. (They don’t have to be kept warm.) Unlike boiling or roasting, the deep-fry method doesn’t cook the chestnuts. Le-Tohic likes to spread them around a roasting chicken with thyme, garlic and butter during the last 45 minutes the bird cooks and serve as a side dish.
One of my favorite holiday side dishes is whole roasted chestnuts with Brussels sprouts and crispy bits of bacon or pancetta. I also like to put chestnuts, apples, and Gewurztraminer with braised cabbage. Instead of mashed potatoes, try a chestnut and sweet potato puree. Wilson adds marrons glacé to this dish, but I think it’s sweet enough without them.
Most people use chestnuts in stuffing. I like to combine them with pork sausage and cornbread. Soups, like the one below, are also a good way to use chestnuts, especially when combined with winter squash or root vegetables.
The sweet and subtle flavor of chestnuts precludes heavy seasonings. Try fresh herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary, onions or shallots, and spices such as nutmeg or mace. Almost any kind of dried fruit as well as fresh apples and pears go well with chestnuts. So do Sherry and Madeira.
Of course, the wine one drinks with chestnuts often depends on the entire dish, if not the entire meal. But Mark Mendoza, sommelier at Sona, likes an aged white Rhone and older Brunellos. Wilson prefers Barberas or Barbarescos. If you’re serving roasted chestnuts with drinks before dinner, Beiman suggests a buttery Chardonnay. When paired with chocolate for dessert, he likes Port.