During the cold, dark months, I always look for things that bring a degree of comfort to combat the harsh realities of Canadian winter: reading in front of a roaring fire, snuggling in a soft blanket, sipping on a steaming beverage, a piping hot bowl of homemade soup and nibbling on chestnuts. Like sugarplums, chestnuts harken back to another time. They bring back the essence of an era that was simpler and slower paced.
Chestnuts are probably one of the first foods eaten by primitive people and have been a staple part of the human diet ever since. Although there is a species of North American chestnut, most of the chestnuts here are from European stock. Chestnuts are very starchy and contain almost twice as much as the average potato. Cooked chestnut meat can be ground into flour, similar to almonds, and used in baking. They are also a great thickener for soups. Their mild, almost bland, flavour compliments both sweet and savoury dishes. As a result, they can be used in a wide variety of ways.
When my children were little, we had an open mesh popcorn maker on the end of a long pole. We used it for roasting chestnuts in the fireplace. It was a novel treat that the children enjoyed and reminded me about this Christmas. Chestnuts should always be roasted, baked or boiled. Because of their high tannic acid content, they will cause digestive distress when eaten raw. In my research, I discovered that Chestnut trees can live as long as five hundred years and don’t begin to bear fruit until they are forty years old. Chestnuts come encased in a spiky pod that looks a bit like a curled up hedgehog! Each pod contains two or three nuts. Fortunately, this husk has been removed and the nuts have been cured before they arrive at the supermarket or green grocer. The ones I purchased were from Italy and had a lovely dark brown shell.
This year I decided to use chestnuts to make dressing, instead of bread cubes. I stuffed and rolled a loin roast of pork, then baked it in the oven. I learned that, for a stronger flavour, I could bake them in the oven at 400F for 15 minutes. For a milder flavour, I could bring them to the boil in a large pot of cold water and simmer them for 15 minutes. I decided to opt for the milder flavour and boiled them.
Before you cook chestnuts, you need to score them to create a vent for steam, so they don’t explode. The first time I did this, I used a paring knife to make an “x” on the flat side of the chestnut. The second time, I simply scored them with a slash on the curved edge with a sharp knife. Both techniques accomplished the job, but the second way seemed much faster and easier to me. I didn’t salt the water and set them on to boil, uncovered, over high heat. Once they came to the boil I reduced the heat and simmered them until they were done. Then I drained the water off and covered them with a clean tea towel to keep them warm. This step is extremely important. Keep the chestnuts warm as you peel them. It makes the job much easier! There are two parts to peel away: the dark brown leathery shell and the inner, fuzzy skin. Both come away easily when the nuts are still warm. If any bits get stuck, I use a grapefruit spoon to dig out the remaining meat. I also find that I can cut the chestnuts in two or four with a sharp knife and simply peel the pieces like an orange, as well.
Once I had the meat separated from the shells and skins, I had the choice of turning it into a meal using my mini food processor or coarsely chopping the meat. I did both. The first time I stuffed and rolled the pork loin, I used the chestnut meal I had ground in the mini food processor. The second time, I chopped the nuts into larger pieces. Both worked well. It would be a matter of personal preference and application. I also used the chopped chestnuts to make a dry dressing, which I baked in a pie plate in the oven. The left over chestnut meat, I sealed in an airtight plastic bag and froze for use at a later date.
I enjoyed the chestnuts so much that I intend to use them again. It is time consuming to cook and peel the chestnuts, but I feel it’s worth the extra effort. According to the LCBO’s magazine, “Food and Drink” Autumn 2009, you can buy chestnut meat shrink wrapped and in cans. Apparently, it’s imported from France. I did look very hard, but I couldn’t find any. If anyone finds a source here in Ontario, please let me know. I’d appreciate having that option available for last minute preparations. The pork roast I did was a variation on the “Canadian Milk” recipe on page 57 in that issue. Of course, I couldn’t resist changing the ingredients and cooking techniques to make it uniquely my own, but then I think all cooks do that. However, the idea for my recipe definitely came from that source and I tip my hat to them.
I believe that our lives are enriched by traditions. They are the little routines and special features of our lives that are repeated around special occasions to make them memorable. Traditions provide a sense of continuity and security in our lives. They make us feel warm and fuzzy. In this time of economic turmoil and world chaos, it’s reassuring to participate in the traditions of our family and culture. If you don’t have any, consider creating some of your own. They certainly add a gracious and meaningful dimension to our lives. So, a new tradition at our house is going to be the addition of chestnuts to our holiday meals. Bon Appétit!