My first encounter with a chestnut was in my friend’s backyard.
She and her family have a beautiful chestnut tree whose branches reach across their whole lot, providing shade and climbing for her three boys — even supporting a swank treehouse.
So when I asked if she might have a few extra nuts for me to try, she showed up with two overflowing bags. I began to frantically search for something to do with all these shiny spheres.
This was years ago. And I have to say that by the end of that supply, I was not a chestnut fan. The soup I made wasn’t so tasty. The work of shelling the nuts was harder than I anticipated. I don’t know that I’ve brought another chestnut into my house since that failed experiment.
Until this fall.
I don’t know what got me thinking about chestnuts again, but they were on my mind. I had begun seeing them everywhere — at my local farmers markets, already peeled and prepped in foil bags at the grocery store, chestnut recipes in my email inbox.
I decided it was time to give them another try.
This go ’round I searched a little longer for information, a little smarter.
According to Susan Freinkel in her 2007 book, “American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree,” the American chestnut tree in its day was truly a sight to behold: broad, strong, prolific, sturdy. It’s been likened to the passenger pigeon, whose flocks at time blotted out the sun. The chestnut tree covered the Appalachian mountains, accounting for one out of every four hardwoods grown there. The chestnut provided abundant food for the forest, coveted, rot-resistant wood for turn-of-the-century builders and trainloads of treats for eaters up and down the East Coast. This tree was so prevalent, so popular, everyone simply assumed it would be with us always.
But then, just like that, it wasn’t any more.
Nearly 4 billion trees were lost in a generation, all at the hands of a virus, the chestnut blight, inadvertently brought over from Asia and borne from forest to forest by the wind.
Yet the tree was so cherished that farmers, scientists, community activists banded together to bring it back. For the last 30 years, the American Chestnut Foundation has been testing, breeding, planting and cross-pollinating in an effort to restore the beloved tree to its Appalachian homeland.
When I spoke with Catherine Mayes, president of the Virginia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation for a story I wrote about chestnuts, she told me it wouldn’t be long before stands of these trees would be replanted in designated sites from Georgia to Maine. The hope is that they will grow healthy and strong, resist the chestnut blight and all other diseases, and that their numbers will multiply to the point where American chestnuts are again so common they are taken for granted.
The good news for eaters is that hybrid varieties, combining the sweet flavor of the American chestnut with the blight resistance of Asian varieties, are becoming more available even as the great American chestnut reintroduction project marches on. Where I live, several area chestnut orchards provide nuts at farmers markets, grocery stores, seasonal retailers and local festivals.
It was seeing these nuts on the streets and in the stores that re-piqued my interest. I’m so glad it did.
This time, I learned that scoring the nuts, really cutting them deeply, then soaking and roasting them in my oven, was key to getting that final shiny shell off. I slice mine nearly in half now before popping them in the oven.
I also discovered how delicious a roasted chestnut is served hot with salt, butter and rosemary. This snack became my favorite way to eat my nuts.
My new soup recipe was a winner, as well. In my version of Chestnut Pumpkin Soup, the chestnuts serve as a healthy, vegetarian thickener, like cashew or almond milk.
The kicker is how good chestnuts are for you. They are high in vitamin C (as high as lemons) and potassium. They taste sweet but are, in fact, low glycemic. They have zero cholesterol and are low in calories and fat. Their fat content is so tiny, I blink twice every time I read it. For comparison, an ounce of macadamia nuts has 21 grams of fat but an ounce of chestnuts has a mere .3 grams of fat!
It turns out that chestnuts are more of a complex carbohydrate, like brown rice, than a nut. Which means they fill you up without costing any calories.
So chestnuts are available, good for you and tasty. What’s not to like?
It’s still work to take a chestnut from the ground (or the farmers market) and turn it into a tasty dish. But no more work than, say, processing a pumpkin. And this time around, the buttery, earthy flavor and smooth, milky texture made the work worth it for me.
What about you? Have you ever cooked with chestnuts? Fan or not so much? Do you have a favorite recipe to share?
An update: I was invited to share this post to Our Growing Edge, a monthly blogging event that highlights and celebrates the trying of new foods and connects food bloggers with a mind to inspire. These are sentiments I can get behind! This month’s event is hosted by Jazzmine from Dash of Jazz, with the theme of Nostalgia. Perfect for my chestnuts post, yes? See more “nostalgia” posts and learn more about Our Growing Edge here. Thanks to http://bunnyeatsdesign.com for the invite.