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Home Plate: Chestnuts: An imagination's seasonal staple in the kitchen and beyond 

  • Boiled chestnuts.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

    Boiled chestnuts.

    HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

  • Chocolate chestnut mousse.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

    Chocolate chestnut mousse.

    HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

  • Chestnut soup.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

    Chestnut soup.

    HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

  • Chocolate chestnut mousse.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

    Chocolate chestnut mousse.

    HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

  • Chestnut soup.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

    Chestnut soup.

    HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

  • Boiled chestnuts.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor
  • Chocolate chestnut mousse.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor
  • Chestnut soup.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor
  • Chocolate chestnut mousse.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor
  • Chestnut soup.<br/><br/>HILLARY NELSON For the Monitor

Once upon a time, New Hampshire’s forests were filled with American chestnuts, a fast-growing tree that could reach over 100 feet tall with a trunk 10 feet in diameter. Chestnuts were treasured both for their wood, which is straight-grained and extremely resistant to decay, and their bountiful crops of vitamin and mineral-rich nuts. Alas, in the early 1900s Chestnut Blight found its way to North America from Asia, and within 50 years, most American Chestnuts were dead.

There remained, however, a few isolated specimens that seemed to be blight-resistant. Pollen from these holdouts (including one tree found in New Hampshire) has been used in recent decades to cross-breed with other chestnut species, especially Chinese chestnuts, which aren’t as susceptible to blight. After many years of research, the American Chestnut Foundation has begun producing disease-resistant trees that are fifteen-sixteenths American Chestnut. Recently, the Foundation began trial growth of these almost-Americans in New England, though they aren’t yet widely available.

Meanwhile, hybrids with a bit less American stock in them are readily available at nurseries, along with many good cultivars of Chinese Chestnuts. And though it can take a dozen or more years to get a crop, and it’s necessary to plant more than one cultivar for good pollination, many varieties of chestnut have proven hardy, healthy and productive in New Hampshire.

We have several mature hybrid trees (of unknown parentage) on our farm, all of which produce a bumper crop of nuts every fall. And because squirrels often cache nuts around the property, every year we find more chestnut seedlings coming up, the most promising of which we plant.

Chestnut harvest can be a little tricky, because the nuts grow inside burrs that are as spiky and dangerous as sea urchins. Some trees have burrs that open on the tree and drop the nuts to the ground; others drop the burrs, which then have to be opened to extract the nuts within. I think it’s actually better to have trees that drop unopened burrs because squirrels don’t have leather gardening gloves and I do.

Once the nuts are out of the burrs, they have to be peeled, another persnickety task, but one that goes quickly once you get the hang of it. I used to cut an X in my chestnut shells and roast them before shelling them, but I read recently on a chestnut producer’s website that the best way to maintain a whole nut is to cut a slice in the shells and boil the nuts briefly. After trying these two methods side by side, I can safely say the one-slice and brief boil method is the way to go.

Fresh chestnuts will be available over the holiday season at grocery stores and some farmers markets. Look for nuts that feel heavy – a sign that they aren’t dried out – and don’t buy any (usually found in grocery stores) that smell like motor oil. I don’t know what they’ve been treated with, but it can’t be good. I know it doesn’t taste good. It’s much better to buy pre-peeled chestnuts, which can often be found in jars, cans or the freezer section. Just make sure they’re not preserved in sugar syrup if you’re planning to put them in your stuffing!

Storing chestnuts

Fresh chestnuts may be stored still in their shells in a tightly sealed plastic container. In the refrigerator, they will keep for a week or so, but keep your eyes open for any signs of mold. If you want to hold them longer than a week, place them in the freezer, where they will keep for several months.

Peeled chestnuts and chestnut puree can also be stored tightly sealed in a plastic container or glass jar for several days in the refrigerator. If you would like to keep them longer, place them in the freezer, where they will keep for a few months.

To cook and peel chestnuts

Place a chestnut, flat side-down, on a cutting board. Use a small, sharp knife (a serrated knife won’t slip as easily as a straight blade) to cut through both the outer shell and inner skin of the chestnut’s rounded side. Try not to cut deeply into the chestnut’s flesh, as this may cause the nut to break apart later. Repeat with all your chestnuts.

The chestnuts may now be cooked in several ways, depending on what you are planning to do with them. If you’d like to eat them hot out of the shell, try roasting them on a sheet tray in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes, depending on size (large or small nuts will need more or less time). You can also cook them in a cast iron skillet over a fire or on the stovetop, but be careful to keep them moving so they don’t burn.

When I prepare chestnuts to use in recipes, I prefer to boil then shell them, which keeps the nuts moist. Bring a medium pot of water to a simmer and submerge about a dozen prepared chestnuts in the hot water (if you are working with a partner, you can cook more at one time). Simmer the chestnuts for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat.

Use a slotted spoon to fish out one chestnut at a time, leaving the rest in the hot water until you are ready for them. Put the nut on the cutting board or hold it in a cloth if it’s too hot for you. The shell will have split apart along the cut line and it should be a simple matter to pry it open and extract the nut whole.

If the nut is fresh, the inner skin will probably stay attached to the shell and the nut will come out clean. If the inner skin is stuck to the nut, it may mean you haven’t let the chestnuts cook long enough (dried out nuts will take longer).

Toss it back in the pot of hot water to loosen the skin before peeling it off.

Chestnuts in recipes

Boiled and peeled chestnuts have only been blanched and will need further cooking. For savory recipes, chestnuts are often simmered in stock until tender and then added whole or in halves to a recipe at the end of cooking (so the nuts don’t disintegrate).

Chestnuts poached in stock until barely tender are wonderful in any number of recipes.

Try adding them to sauteed wild mushrooms or to the drippings in a pan of roasted meat, or toss them with roasted brussels sprouts.

Traditionally, when chestnuts will be used in sweets, they are simmered until soft in milk or a combination of milk and water, often with a little sweetener and a spice, like a cinnamon stick or vanilla bean, added to the liquid. Usually the mixture is then turned into a puree before being added to a recipe.

Whole chestnuts can also be poached in a sugar syrup made of one part sugar to one part water with or without a flavoring, such as a vanilla bean, added to the syrup.

When the chestnuts are tender, they are removed from the syrup, which is then reduced to become a bit thicker and cooled before being poured over the chestnuts. If desired, you can add a glug of brandy or rum to the syrup at this point.

The chestnuts will keep a long time in the sugar syrup stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator, especially if you’ve added some alcohol to the mixture. Throw a ribbon on the jar and it will make a great holiday gift.

This dessert is thick, rich and chestnut-textured, more of a ganache than a true mousse. If you have any left over, try rolling it into balls and dipping them in melted chocolate for chestnut truffles, or soften it up at room temperature and use it to fill a layer cake.

Chocolate Chestnut Mousse

8 ounces peeled, chopped chestnuts

¼ cup sugar

½ to 1 cup whole milk

half a vanilla bean, split in half the long way, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups heavy cream, divided

8 ounces 60 percent chocolate chips

For Serving:

whipped cream

Caramelized Chestnuts (recipe follows)

Combine the chestnuts, sugar, ½ cup milk and the vanilla bean halves in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, then cover the pot.

Allow the mixture to cook, stirring often and adding more milk if necessary, until the nuts are very soft and beginning to disintegrate. Remove from heat.

Lift out the vanilla bean halves and, using a small knife, scrape their seeds into the chestnuts (or add the vanilla, if using). Mash the chestnuts with a potato masher or a fork, then put the mixture through a sieve to make a homogenous puree. Set aside.

Heat ¾ cup of the cream in a bowl in the microwave or in a small pot on the stove until just below the simmer. Remove from heat and add the chocolate chips. Let them sit for a minute or two and then stir gently until the chips have completely melted into the cream and the mixture is smooth.

If necessary, return to the microwave or stove top very briefly so all the chips melt. Stir the melted chocolate into the chestnut puree until the mixture is smooth. Set aside.

Whip the remaining cream to soft peaks (don’t over-whip). Gently fold the whipped cream into the chestnut-chocolate mixture until just incorporated.

Pour the mixture into dessert dishes and refrigerate until set.

Serve with additional whipped cream and Caramelized Chestnuts, if desired.

Makes 8 servings

Caramelized Chestnuts

1∕3 cup granulated sugar

½ cup coarsely chopped chestnuts

Place the sugar in a small, heavy skillet and place over medium high heat. You will soon see the edges of the sugar begin to melt and smoke a bit. Swirl the pan occasionally so the sugar browns and melts evenly, adjusting the heat if necessary.

When the sugar is about half melted, use a very clean spoon to stir it so that it melts completely and browns evenly without burning.

When the sugar is completely liquid and brown, remove from the heat and stir in the chestnuts.

Pour the mixture onto an oiled sheet tray or parchment paper and allow to cool enough to handle.

Because the chestnuts contain a lot of moisture, they will probably lift out of the caramel, retaining a liquid caramel coating.

The hardened caramelized sugar left behind can be either discarded or used for another purpose.

Chestnut Soup

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup diced onion

½ cup diced leek

½ cup peeled and diced celery root

½ cup diced celery

½ cup peeled and diced carrot

1 cup peeled and diced apple

1½ cups peeled and chopped chestnuts

1 cup peeled and diced Jerusalem artichokes

3 cups stock (or more)

a few sprigs fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

½ cup heavy cream (optional)

¼ cup dry sherry (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

Vegetable Garnish (recipe follows, optional)

Heat the butter and oil in a heavy stock pot over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the onion and leek and allow them to cook for 5 minutes or so, until soft but not brown.

Add the celery root, the celery and carrot and cook for another five minutes, adjusting the heat if necessary to keep the vegetables from browning.

Add the apple, chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes and cook for a few minutes, then add the stock and the thyme.

Cover the pot and simmer gently for 20 minutes or so, until the vegetables are very soft. When the vegetables are soft, puree the mixture in the pot with an immersion blender, or place in batches in a food processor or blender. If a velvety texture is desired, pour the puree through a sieve, pushing the soup against the walls of the sieve to force through as much of it as possible. Discard what remains in the sieve or reserve for another use.

The soup may be made to this point and refrigerated for a few days or frozen, if desired. If frozen, leave in the refrigerator overnight to thaw before proceeding with the recipe.

Return the mixture to a pot of medium-low heat and bring it to a simmer. If it is too thick, add a bit more stock. If desired, add the heavy cream and sherry and simmer for five minutes or so to blend the flavors. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as needed.

Serve immediately, garnished with a few spoonfuls of Chestnut-Vegetable Garnish, if desired.

Serves 4.

Note: This soup is extremely flexible, so use whatever root vegetables and stock you have on hand. It will be just as good.

Chestnut-Vegetable Garnish

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or olive oil

¼ cup minced leek or onion

¼ cup minced carrot

¼ cup minced celery

¼ cup chopped peeled chestnuts

salt and pepper

a few sprigs of parsley or celery leaves, finely sliced to a chiffonade

Melt the butter or heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the leek or onion and cook until barely beginning to brown. Add the carrot, celery and chestnuts and cook until all the vegetables are lightly browned. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Make a small mound of vegetables in the middle of each bowl of soup, then sprinkle each with a bit of the chiffonade of parsley or celery.

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