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12/26/2001 Archived Entry: "The Chestnut Roast"

You may have heard Perry Como (et al) croon over the long tradition of chestnuts roasting over an open fire, but did you know that by the time I heard that song (in the mid-60s) it was an all but forgotten tradition among American families?

My dad told me once that when he was a kid, his dad served his own recipe for roasted chestnuts. I regret to report that that recipe is forever lost. I ate my first roasted chestnut while living in Japan as a child (I'm an AF brat). Kachiguri (dried chestnuts) are a delicacy in Japan. There's even a children's song about a young 'kuri' rolling down a hill.

Well, so much for American traditions.

The sad story is that the American chestnut was - next to hemp and cotton - a most prolific agricultural product. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, there was "one chestnut for every four oaks, birches, maples and other hardwoods." However, over logging and the introduction of a lethal fungus felled the American chestnut forests - en masse. The variety practically disappeared from the continent by the 1920s (a whole 40 years before I ever saw one).

I had hoped to rekindle my interest in that noble nut by adding it to my stuffing recipe for this year's family Christmas dinner. The stuffing, I am happy to say, was a real hit. Even my 9-year-old nephew savored the soft and not-to-sweet texture of the chestnuts my wife and I baked and peeled the day before – which wasn't fun, I’ll tell you now.

Did you know that there's practically no such thing as pre-peeled chestnuts (no, not water chestnuts, REAL chestnuts). The alternative was to do it the old fashioned way which left both our hands badly cut and blistered (we peeled damn near two pounds of chestnuts!).

Wouldn't you know that there are alternatives; ones that I still can't believe that I missed because I was remiss in checking the net for recipes. So, allow me to save you the effort:

First, buy fresh chestnuts (very important) - sort them out in the store and discard those with small holes or mold on the shell. Store fresh chestnuts in a plastic bag with a few ventilation holes punched in it. Place the bag in the lower 'veggie' tray of your refrigerator.

Second, pick the way you want to cook them. To Roast: over an open fire, use a long handled popcorn popper or chestnut roaster; in an oven, try a temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes. WARNING: before cooking, puncture each nut once or twice with an ice pick or a knife. I cut an 'x' in each nut – which seemed to make peeling a bit easier. If you fail to do this, pressure from the steam that may build up inside the shells will cause them to explode – and being hit by a sizzling shard of chestnut husk is something to be avoided at all costs. My cat will never be the same.

To Boil: place them in a shallow pan with water that just covers them. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and boil gently for 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and partially cool, then remove the kernels using a sharp tine of a table fork. The longer the nuts cook, the mealier the kernels become and tend to crumble when removed from the shells. For especially dry chestnuts, soak them overnight in water before boiling in fresh water.

To Steam: carefully cut fresh, moist chestnuts in half and cook them in a vegetable steamer over boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. Most kernels should fall out of the shells during cooking. Steamed or boiled nuts can be dipped in melted butter and salted, if desired, or used in other recipes.

You can store cooked chestnuts in the refrigerator for a month or two or in the freezer for up to a year. Here are some useful sites:

The American Chestnut Foundation
http://chestnut.acf.org/

American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation
http://ipm.ppws.vt.edu/griffin/accf.html

Order Chestnuts Online - from Earthly Delights
http://www.earthy.com/cgi-local/SoftCart.exe/pages/f_chestnuts.htm?E+delight

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