Chestnuts reemerge

  • Chestnuts grow inside a burr on chestnut trees; Chinese varieties drop the burrs while American drop the nuts. BEHIND: Raw chestnuts. HILLARY NELSON photos / For LiveWell

  • Raw chestnuts HILLARY NELSON—For LiveWell

  • Cooked and peeled chestnuts HILLARY NELSON—For LiveWell

  • Sliced chestnuts HILLARY NELSON—For LiveWell

  • Chestnut Soup has a flavor profile similar to Thanksgiving stuffing with leeks, onions, carrots, mushrooms and apples. HILLARY NELSON / For LiveWell

For LiveWell
Published: 11/3/2017 3:36:53 PM

A hundred years ago, the dominant tree species in the woodlands of much of New Hampshire was the American chestnut, a fast grower that could reach more than 100 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter, that was excellent both for lumber and the nutritious, delicious nuts they produced in abundance. Alas, in the early 1900s, chestnut blight arrived in the United States, probably on an imported Japanese chestnut. By the 1940s, about 4 billion chestnuts trees had been wiped out by the blight.

Since then, plant breeders have been working hard to create a blight-resistant chestnut, usually by crossing Asian varieties with American strains. There are now hybrids available that are genetically very close to the original American chestnut, with just enough Chinese chestnut genetics to make them fairly disease resistant.

On our farm we have about a dozen chestnuts, none of them identical, all crosses of American and Asian chestnuts, many of them started by squirrels and chipmunks burying caches of stolen nuts from the first chestnut crosses my husband’s parents planted more than 30 years ago. Though the original trees die back sporadically from chestnut blight, they always send up new leaders from their roots and within a few years, we have abundant chestnuts again.

Ripe chestnuts are contained inside a prickly burr. On Chinese chestnut trees, these burrs drop to the ground and then have to be pried open with sturdy shoes, before the chestnut can be oh-so carefully extracted. American chestnut burrs tend to open on the tree when ripe, dropping the nuts to the ground. This is one way to to judge how predominant American chestnut genetics are in one of our squirrel-planted trees – if it drops its nuts, it’s probably more American than Chinese.

There are small differences in the way the chestnuts look between American and Asian varieties, but they all taste the same. A little sweet, starchy and delicious, chestnuts are equally good in savory dishes or desserts, or simply roasted and eaten straight out of the shell.

Chestnuts are best cooked soon after they are gathered. Otherwise, be sure to refrigerate them, and if you can’t cook them within a few days, pop them in the freezer. Left at room temperature or in the refrigerator for a long period, the flesh will dry out, darken and take on an unpleasant flavor.

To prepare chestnuts for cooking, the shell must be sliced. I do this by holding the nut firmly on a cutting board, and using a sharp knife to make a single slice through the tip of the nut. If I just want to eat the chestnuts, they are delicious cooked over a fire in a cast iron skillet, or baked in the oven at about 350 degrees for 20 minutes or so.

If I am planning to use the nuts in recipes, I slit them, then steam them in a basket over a pot of simmering water with a lid on top. When the slit in the skin opens up revealing the meat inside, they are ready to peel. I turn off the heat under the pot, but leave most of the nuts over the hot water, removing four of five at a time to peel. It’s much easier to get the inner skin off of the nut when they are still very hot.

Once the nuts are peeled, they may be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed plastic bag for a few days or frozen for a few months. They are not completely cooked, though, and you will need to cook them more, especially if you would like to puree them.

My favorite destination for chestnuts is the stuffing I make for my Thanksgiving turkey. If you happen to be gluten intolerant or just avoiding the empty carbs in bread, I have created a soup that contains all the delicious ingredients of stuffing minus the bread. It would be a perfect first course for Thanksgiving, but would be welcome any time the weather outside is cold and blustery. And it’s vegetarian!

Chestnut Soup

1 stick unsalted butter

1 cup chopped leeks

1 cup chopped onions

¾ cup chopped carrots

5 dried shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, chopped (if dried, soaked first)

1 tart apple peeled, cored and chopped (about 1 cup)

1 small hot green pepper chopped

1 pound of chestnuts (already steamed and peeled)

8 cups water

several sprigs fresh thyme or a teaspoon dried

salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in the bottom of a heavy stock pot. When bubbling, add the leeks and onions and allow to cook slowly, not browning, until soft. Add the carrots, mushrooms and green pepper, and continue cooking slowly until everything is softened, another 10 minutes or so. Don’t let things brown.

Add the chestnuts and cook another 10 minutes at a low temperature. Add the water and thyme and stir well. Bring to a simmer and cook, just bubbling a bit, for 45 minutes to an hour, until all the vegetables are soft.

Add about a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper.

Use an immersion blender to puree the mixture until fairly smooth or to a consistency you like. This may also be done in a food processor or blender.

Taste for seasonings and add more salt and pepper if desired. Serve hot.

It will keep in the refrigerator for a week or so, and for several months in the freezer.

Serves six generously.

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