Growing and Cooking Chestnuts
Food for the AgesThe chestnut has been cultivated since ancient times; it is even mentioned in the Old Testament. Most people these days know chestnuts from The Christmas Song recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946 (which, ironically, was written after chestnuts had fallen from favor in the American diet, and during the heat of summer no less!). American native chestnuts were a common sight in fields and in the kitchen in many parts of America until the early 1900’s when Chestnut blight spread across the continent. It was first noted in 1904 in New York, and by the 1950’s had wiped out most of the native trees. Any new American Chestnut saplings, even to this day, are likely to succumb to the disease before reaching maturity. Since that time, these lovely and delicious trees have been imported from Asia in order to provide disease resistant stock. Chinese chestnuts and American-Chinese hybrids are now the most commonly found chestnuts in America. Their hardiness, quick growth and beauty make them an excellent choice to add to any yard or farm.
Selecting Your TreesIn order for your trees to produce fruit, you will need to plant two varieties of chestnut trees. The most popular chestnut variety is “Colossal,” an American-Chinese hybrid that produce medium to large sized nuts that are easy to peel. They can grow to 70 feet. Colossal is pollenized by Nevada. “Nevada” is another hardy American-Chinese hybrid that produces medium to large sized nuts. It is named for Nevada County, California (also home of Peaceful Valley Farm Supply!), where it was first bred. Nevada is pollenized by Colossal.
Choose a Planting Site WiselyBecause the chestnuts will be large trees once fully grown, it is essential to choose a planting site with sufficient room for the mature trees. They are great shade trees - good for you on hot summer days, but not so good for certain other plants, so plan your landscape accordingly. Chestnuts are primarily wind-pollinated. In order to have your trees successfully pollenize each other, they must be planted within 200 feet of each other. Two to three ripe nuts are housed inside spiny outer burr that can be as large as a tennis ball. At harvest time these sharp burrs will litter the ground beneath the tree, so don’t plant them anywhere that this would pose a problem for barefoot people or their tender-footed pets. Horses and cattle don’t mind walking on the burrs, but they can damage any fallen nuts that haven’t been gathered. If you will be planting chestnuts in a pasture, you might want to put up a temporary fence around the tree at harvest time to keep the nuts from being damaged.
Gather the HarvestYour chestnut trees should begin to fruit 3 to 5 years after you plant them. You’ll know when they are ripe because the burrs will fall to the ground, sometimes with the nut inside and sometimes after having released the nut. To harvest the nuts, simply gather those that have fallen from the tree every day or two. Don’t wait too long or squirrels and other critters will find them before you do. You can also shake the branches to knock down ripe nuts that haven’t yet dropped, but be careful not to be hit by falling burrs! Simply remove the nuts that are still inside the collected burrs, and discard the spiny outer covering. The burrs make good mulch in areas that you would like to keep animals out of, such as around the perimeter of your vegetable garden.
In the Kitchen
Chestnuts have an excellent starchy, sweet flavor. They are less protein-rich than other nuts, but are a good source of vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients. They are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, and unlike other nuts are high in Vitamin C and folates. Because chestnuts are high in starch and gluten free, they make an excellent alternative flour for gluten-free diets. In fact, chestnut flour is a traditional ingredient in many Italian recipes such as castagnaccio and tagliatelle.
Chestnuts can be eaten raw, but due to their high tannin content they are typically cooked. They can be prepared by roasting in the oven, boiling, or microwaving. It is essential that you make a slit in them before cooking so they don’t explode as they heat up. When they are done, the outer peel will curl back and should peel off easily. Be careful not to overcook them for the best flavor. There are so many delicious ways to use chestnuts in recipes that the hardest part of cooking with them is deciding where to start!
For an abundance of recipes (and a super-fast microwave cooking method) check out the Center for AgroForestry’s website. But perhaps the most delicious of all chestnut recipe is for the classic French marrons glacés, or candied chestnuts. Here’s a version adapted from Lorraine Elliott at Not Quite Nigella: 2/3 lb peeled chestnuts (already prepared by roasting, boiling or microwaving) 2/3 lb sugar 3/4 cup water 1 vanilla bean Start this recipe four days before you intend on eating them. Combine the sugar, water, and vanilla bean in a large pan, and cook over low heat. Stir frequently until the sugar dissolves. Simmer for 5 minutes more, then add the prepared chestnuts. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and discard the vanilla bean. Cover the saucepan and allow the nuts to steep in the sauce for at least 12 hours. Put the pan back on the stove, bring to a boil for one minute only, and remove from heat. Cover and steep for 24 hours. Repeat the one-minute boil and 24 hour steep 2 to 3 more times, at which point the syrup should have absorbed. If not, drain off the liquid (and save it to use like maple syrup). Preheat the oven to 150F.
Put the chestnuts on a parchment paper lined baking tray, and dehydrate in the oven for about 2 hours. Leave the oven door cracked during this process to improve the results. Store them individually wrapped in an airtight container. Eat as candy, or serve sprinkled over desserts.