Food for Thought - Dec 23, 2010 - Mark R. Vogel - Mark’s Article Archive
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
Chestnuts hail from a deciduous tree indigenous to the Americas and Asia. There are numerous species and mankind has been harvesting them for millennia. The Native Americans were consuming them long before the first European settlers arrived in the New World. The Europeans in turn, were introduced to the chestnut from Sardis, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, now part of Eastern Turkey. Thus, the people of that time referred to chestnuts as the “Sardian Nut.” Sardis was an important city in the ancient Persian Empire until falling to Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. Later it was a key metropolis in the Roman Empire.
Both Alexander and the Romans planted chestnuts throughout Europe. They were amenable to the mountainous Mediterranean regions where cereal grains would not grow well. This rendered chestnuts indispensable for the inhabitants of those grain-challenged areas. Chestnuts became a principal food source and a valuable commodity in bartering. The ancient Greeks ground them into flour and made chestnut bread. The Romans used ground chestnuts to produce a form of polenta. The Romans also believed that chestnuts counteracted certain poisons, dysentery and rabies. Some species of chestnut trees were grown for their wood as well.
The United States produces only one percent of the planet’s chestnut production. China is the world’s leader even though most American chestnuts are imported from Italy. American chestnuts were decimated by a deadly blight which ravaged them in the early 1900’s. Approximately four billion chestnut trees succumbed and their recovery has been somewhat lackluster.
Fresh chestnuts are available September through February and hence are a fall, winter, and holiday favorite. Who hasn’t heard Nat King Cole warmly crooning: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?” Chestnuts are rather perishable and care should be taken when choosing them. Don’t just scoop them up indiscriminately from their supermarket container. Unless it’s a very fresh batch you’ll inevitably gather some bad ones. Observe, and more importantly press each chestnut. They should sport a shiny, brown exterior, be devoid of any blemishes and above all, be firm. Keep them refrigerated until use. Chestnuts are also available canned, frozen and dried. In France, “marrons glacés are chestnuts canned in a sweet syrup. They are especially popular at Christmas and New Year’s.
While roasting them on a fire might seem traditional or sentimental, an oven is more reliable. Simply cut a slit in them and place them in a 450 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Once cooled you can peel the hard shell and outer skin of the nut. The nut itself is meaty, with an earthy yet sweet taste. Chestnuts contain potassium, B and C vitamins, and are very low in fat.
Chestnuts are quite versatile and are employed in all sorts of culinary concoctions. They can be pureed into soups, or mixed in with mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes. They can be roasted with vegetables, Brussels sprouts being a classic pairing. They are also used in pasta dishes and stuffings, and to make jams and cakes. Portugal is known for making a chestnut liquor. Below is my recipe for chestnut and celery root soup, a hearty, creamy soup perfect for this time of year.
CHESTNUT & CELERY ROOT SOUP
· 1 lb. chestnuts in the shell
· 1 medium onion, diced
· 1 large leek, white part only, diced
· 1 rib celery, diced
· 8 oz. celery root, diced
· Small batch of thyme, tied with cooking twine
· 2 bay leaves
· Salt and pepper to taste
· 4 tablespoons butter
· 1 Granny Smith apple, cored, peeled and diced
· 1 pint heavy cream
· 1 pint chicken stock or broth, plus more as needed
Heat your oven to 450 degrees.
Make a cut in the flat side of each chestnut and roast, cut side up for 10-15 minutes. Remove them from the oven, allow them to cool and peel off the shell and outer skin. Roughly chop the chestnuts.
Sweat the onion, leek, celery, celery root, thyme, bay leaves salt, and pepper in the butter until the vegetables start to soften.
Add the chestnuts and apple and cook for 10 minutes without browning.
Add the cream and stock, bring to a boil, and then simmer, covered, for 45 minutes.
Remove the thyme and bay leaves and puree the soup in a blender.
Add a little extra chicken broth for a less thick soup.
Add additional salt and pepper to taste.