There's nothing more warming and comforting in winter than eating dishes that resonate with the rich, earthy flavour of chestnuts. Chestnuts are strongly associated with European winters, freshly roasted on charcoal braziers and sold in paper cones.
This starchy nut which has little oil content and is packed with minerals (phosphorus, calcium and magnesium) was a staple food of the poor in ancient times, both in Europe and China. They were shelled, peeled and dried to provide sustenance well beyond their autumn season. Dried chestnuts are widely used still in Chinese and Italian cuisines. They are easy to use, requiring only an overnight soak in water to reconstitute.
There are many species and even more varieties of chestnuts, each with its own characteristic texture (ranging from floury to creamy to waxy) and flavour (savoury to sweet) as well as degree of difficulty in peel the bitter, mouth-puckering skin (from impossible to easy).
How To Prepare Fresh Chestnuts For Cooking
Fresh chestnuts can be prepared by roasting or boiling. Cut a slit on the flat side of each chestnut with a sharp knife. Either roast in a preheated 180ºC oven for 30 minutes or boil the nuts for 45 minutes. Shell and peel them when they are still warm as the skin comes away more easily then.
Today you can also buy frozen peeled chestnuts which have all of the delicate flavour and texture of the fresh nut but are easy to use: just open the packet!
Using Chestnuts in Cooking
Beyond stuffing the Christmas turkey, chestnuts are wonderful all year found in dishes ranging from soups to sweets.
Creamy chestnut soup is a fabulous "make-you-all-fuzzy-inside" soup. Sauté chopped onions, carrots, celery and bacon in butter (or better still, bacon fat!) until softened. Add peeled chestnuts, stock, salt and pepper and simmer for 40 minutes until the chestnuts are soft. Puree and pass through a sieve and serve hot with fried bread.
Regional northern Italian chestnut specialties include tortelli di mostarda castagne (chestnut tortelli) from Parma, consisting of tiny parcels of pasta stuffed with preserved fruits, roasted chestnuts and grape syrup. Dressed with Parmigiano Reggiano and butter, they are served as a first course, or with extra grape syrup as a dessert.
Another very simple but equally delicious pasta dish is Minestra di Castagne Dei Colli Reggiani: reconstituted dried chestnuts are cooked in salted water until tender at which time fresh maltagliati pasta is cooked in the same pot. (Maltagliati, literally "badly cut", is a flat pasta cut into small irregular pieces. Believed to have originated in the district of Emilia, it probably came out as a means of using up pasta scraps: waste not, want not!)
Roasted Brussel sprouts and chestnuts are a classic marriage that would tempt even those who normally avoid that vegetable like the plague!
Chestnuts are excellent with braised or roasted game, meat and fowl dishes. Cook the chestnuts with some streaky bacon, a sprig of thyme and a couple of bay leaves, and roasting juices or stock in the roasting pan tightly covered with foil for about 45 minutes to serve as an accompaniment to the roast.
Mont Blanc, a mound of sweetened sieved chestnut puree topped with cream to resemble snow, is a renowned chestnut dessert. The Chinese version, li tzu tan kou, is the opposite of lofty heights of Mont Blanc. Known as Peking Dust, this dish consists of little brown heaps of pureed chestnuts which have been cooked in brown sugar placed around a mound of whipped cream. The little heaps are said to resemble brown dust swept up by street cleaners in the city!
Marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) are a special treat. Chocolate is a frequent companion for chestnuts in European cakes such as the luxurious Hungarian Chestnut Torte of walnut cake layers and chocolate chestnut cream topped off with chocolate shavings. There's the ultra rich Austrian chestnut pudding, Nesselrode. This steamed moulded chestnut custard with glace fruit was named after a Russian count who was a famous European diplomat in the 19th century.
Chestnut flour is the basis of the Tuscan dessert/cake Castagnaccio which also includes rosemary and pine nuts. This flour is also used for bread (usually mixed with some wheat flour as chestnut flour has virtually no gluten) and the "stamped" Ligurian pasta corzetti. The Italian polenta dish was originally made with chestnut flour but this practice died out after the introduction of maize from the New World.
In Chinese cuisine, chestnuts are used in braised meat and poultry dishes. A traditional food served during the Dragon Boat festival is chung: triangular bamboo-leaf wrapped parcels of glutinous rice with various flavourings, including a savoury version with dark soy-seasoned rice studded with chestnuts, belly pork and salted duck-egg yolk.
Try this simple Chinese home-style dish.
CHINESE BRAISED CHICKEN WITH CHESTNUTS
Serves 2 - 3
300g fresh peeled or frozen chestnuts or 150g dried
4 - 6 dried shiitake mushooms
1 kg chicken pieces, on the bone
1 tbsp thick dark soy sauce
1 tsp salt
2 - 3 spring onions (scallions)
Oil for stir frying
3 - 4 thin slices fresh ginger
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp cornflour blended with 1 tsp cold water
2 tsp sesame oil
For the dried chestnuts: place the chestnuts in a bowl and pour boiling water over. Leave to soak at least 8 - 10 hours, preferably overnight. Rinse and leave soaked in cold water until ready to use. Just before cooking, drain and nudge out any skin from the crevices of the nut meat with a toothpick. Frozen chestnuts can be used straight from the pack (defrosted).
A few hours before cooking, soak the shiitake mushrooms in at least 300 ml hot water. Just before cooking, cut and discard stems from the mushrooms. Strain soaking liquid and reserve for use in cooking.
Wash and dry the chicken pieces. Chop into small pieces: drumsticks and thigh pieces in half; the wing 'drumette' separated from the lower wing. Rub dark soy sauce and salt evenly over the chicken pieces. Cut the spring onion into 2.5 cm lengths, keeping white and green sections separate.
In a medium-sized heavy casserole set over high heat, heat about 3 - 4 tbsp oil until smoking hot. Fry the chicken pieces together with the ginger and the white sections of the spring onions for about 5 minutes, tossing them constantly. Remove from the casserole and set aside.
Add about 1 tbsp oil to the casserole and fry the chestnuts and mushrooms for several minutes. Add about 250 ml of the mustroom soaking water, light soy sauce and sugar. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes (15 minutes for frozen chestnuts).
Return the chicken pieces to the casserole. Stir to combine. Cover the casserole and simmer for 40 minutes or until the chicken is tender, stirring occasionally. The chestnuts should also be tender but still al dente.
Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in the corn flour paste. Simmer for a few minutes. Just before serving, stir in the sesame oil and the reserved green sections of the spring onions. Simmer for a further 5 minutes.
Serve hot with steamed rice and a vegetable dish.