For me, the thought of chestnuts instantly brings up images of open fires, yule logs and holiday gatherings in a decidedly European Christian environment. A closer read of the actualities of the Church’s influence over its subjects as it continued an iron and none-too-ignorant grip over the major European populations in the post-Roman era brings to light that the Church often “revealed” the prevailing pagan, gentile and Jewish customs and practices as Christian in order to establish its overwhelming dominance.
The custom of eating chestnuts was actually brought to Europe by the Romans from the Middle East during their conquering marches into the northwestern regions. Because chestnuts have a very high starch content that gives long-lasting energy, bread made from a mixture of wheat and chestnut flour was part of the rations eaten by the Roman troops. Chestnut trees were planted throughout Europe as the Romans established rule.
But who knew that long before the Roman emperors were overwhelming the Western world, Jews were roasting the sweet nuts? Chestnuts, pretty much as we know them today, come from China (the genus name Castanea comes from Kastanum, now an Asian part of Turkey). They were brought to the Middle East by nomadic tribes and were certainly part of the early Hebrews’ diet. In Genesis, the Bible cites Jacob putting peeled chestnut twigs into his animals’ water troughs to keep their offspring healthy, and it is surmised that, when following the ancient laws of kashrut, early Jews used chestnut milk to substitute for the milk of their goats.
North America has a different species of native chestnut that was very common when the first European settlers came, and many traditional Euro-American recipes use chestnuts in breads, stews and sweets. The native was broadly used until a blight wiped out most of the trees in the late 19th century. Although some chestnut orchardists now grow and sell the native type, most of the chestnuts used in the U. S. now come from China or Turkey.
Chestnuts are extremely low in fat compared with the high fat content of other nuts (for those of you counting fat calories): three grams per ounce and 54 calories as compared with the 166 fat calories per ounce in peanuts. And they are absolutely delicious, sweet and slightly earthy with a satisfying starchy-creamy consistency. They are not easy to peel, but buying some now when they are in season and roasting or boiling and peeling them is a fun and delicious project. For use in recipes, they are available peeled and frozen, canned or dried, which when re-hydrated have a more sumptuous and intense flavor.
Here is a method for peeling chestnuts and a couple of recipes to try. You can also use chestnuts instead of almonds or hazelnuts when tossing nuts with vegetables, or add them to any stew at the last minute.
To peel fresh chestnuts: Choose very firm chestnuts that do not rattle in their shells or compress when pressed. With a small sharp knife, slash an “X” into both flat sides of the shell. You may then either roast or boil them to remove the outer shell and the inedible husk that clings to the nutmeat.
To remove both shells, the nuts must be hot when you peel them. To heat, roast at 350º for about 20 minutes in a covered pan, or boil for about 15 minutes. Keep the remaining chestnuts covered while you’re peeling or you’ll have little luck in removing the inner shell — I am definitely speaking from experience!
Here is a recipe that evokes the scents and ingredients from our Middle Eastern heritage:
Lamb Stew with Chestnuts and Pomegranates
1 lb. chestnuts, roasted and shelled
2 onions, diced
1/4 cup light cooking oil (olive oil is also fine)
1-1/2 lbs. boneless lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 tsp. turmeric, ground
1/4 tsp. crushed saffron threads
1/2 tsp. cinnamon, ground
1 cup walnuts, minced fine or ground roughly
1/2 tsp. dried mint, crushed
1 cup pomegranate juice
2 Tbs. tomato paste
3 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. salt
1 clove garlic. minced
1 tsp. ground black pepper
Fresh mint sprigs for garnish
Heat the oil in a heavy casserole over medium heat and sauté the onion for 10 minutes, adding the garlic after five minutes. Raise the heat to medium high and add the meat, turmeric, salt and pepper and brown the meat on all sides. Stir in the saffron, cinnamon, mint, walnuts, tomato paste and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 1-1/2 hours. Add lemon juice, pomegranate juice and chestnuts. Stir well, then cover and simmer for 10 more minutes. Serve with saffron rice.
This dish is also traditionally made with the addition of prunes, raisins, dried or fresh apricots or grapes and is even more delicious in this concoction.
Chestnuts Glazed in Honey and Cream
This is a dish I created for a recent dinner where goose was the main attraction. I served this really decadent preparation with the main course of smoked roast goose, smoked portabella mushrooms, and red cabbage jam. Forget the calories you saved by eating low-cal chestnuts with this one, but enjoy the absolute decadence of its sensual richness.
1 lb. chestnuts, peeled (about 14 oz. without shells)
1-1/4 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup honey
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. vanilla
Put 1/2 cup cream in a large sauté pan and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and let reduce until it is about half its original volume, then add two Tbs. honey and the salt, stir to dissolve, and bring back to a boil. Stir in the chestnuts and reduce the heat to medium, then cook until the cream caramelizes and glazes the chestnuts, and begins to turn a deep mahogany brown.
Remove the nuts to a bowl and add the remaining cream, honey and vanilla while stirring to dissolve. Reduce the cream by half again, add the chestnuts back to the pan, and continue to cook over medium-low heat, stirring and turning over in the glaze until the chestnuts are completely coated and are a shiny golden brown. Serve warm, about four or five chestnuts per person.
Serves 8 as a side dish