Home Cooking Recipes
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Quick & Easy
By Beverly Barbour

There is a nut that is not nutty

It wasn't until the Jewel Bearing Plant in Rolla, N.D., brought to that little town a nucleus of families from Switzerland all of whom were specialists in the art of creating teeny tiny, miniscule little bearings from man-made sapphire, that most of us "natives" ever gave chestnuts a second thought. I doubt that my mother and father have ever seen one. I certainly had not.

But the Swiss folks certainly had and they couldn't imagine a Christmas without chestnuts. Fortunately, they loved to entertain and so chestnuts entered the holiday lexicon of our little town. They are an amazingly versatile food but really hard nuts to crack. If you don't want to bother with getting the nut out of the hard shell, you can buy them roasted, peeled and jarred or vacuum packed for year-round use. In the shell they are wintertime-only treat.

Chestnuts are very versatile because they are unlike any other nut. They are exactly opposite of our good old fatty nuts, which have about 5 percent water and 50 percent fat. The chestnut actually has more starch than a potato. They are a bit like the potato crop in Ireland, the back bone of many cuisines in countries where the trees provide plentiful nuts each year.

Greek cooks braise chestnuts with lamb and honey and stew them with pork. In northern Italy (where chestnut trees were called "bread trees") a history of poverty created cuisine based on them. In addition to adding chestnuts to soups and braising them with wine, Mediterranean cooks grind the dried nuts into a flour for making breads, cakes and polenta.

How to crack fresh chestnuts

If you have an old fashioned wire basket with a long handle and cover, the kind that used to be used for making popcorn on an open fire, you can use that on top of the range or over the grill instead of the oven method given below.

In Europe, and New York vendors roast them on the street in the winter and sell you little bags full of warm roasted nuts. You can walk around shelling and chewing in the cold. One pound of fresh chestnuts equals about 2 cups of shelled nut meats.

1. Start with heavy, glossy nuts with firm smooth shells. With a sharp knife cut a small cross on one side of each shell to let the steam escape as the nuts roast and to make them easier to peel.

2. Preheat oven to 400 F and arrange nuts in a single layer on a cookie pan with raised sides or a shallow casserole. Roast for 25 or 30 minutes until skin is loosened.

3. Wrap hot chestnuts in a towel and squeeze to crush the shells. Keep the nuts wrapped for 5 minutes before removing both the hard outer shell and the brown skin inside. Be careful not to burn your fingers.

Baked Chestnuts as a Side Dish

When my Swiss friends first introduced me to chestnuts they used this recipe and served them with pork. I had made a new food friend. You can use canned stock or make it from bouillon cubes. Makes 4 servings.

3 cups shelled chestnuts
2 tablespoons brown sugar, or more
1 3/4 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour

Preheat oven to 325 F. (If you are sharing the oven with something requiring higher heat, shorten the baking period.) Butter a baking dish and pour in the shelled chestnuts. Roll them about a bit with the brown sugar and then add the chicken stock. Cover and bake for about 3 hours. Pour off remaining stock and save it. Keep the chestnuts warm while making the sauce. In a saucepan melt the butter and whisk in flour, blending to eliminate any lumps. Slowly whisk in the saved stock. When sauce is thickened and boiling, pour it over the chestnuts and serve.

Baked Brussels Sprouts and Chestnuts

The round shape of both green Brussels sprouts and cream colored chestnuts make this dish interesting to the eye as well as the tongue. When you top this dish with cheese and bread crumbs it forms a contrasting crunchy top which is also very tasty. Cheddar cheese will make a heavier cover than Parmesan or Romano. Makes 6 servings.

2 cups cooked Brussels sprouts
1/2 pound cooked chestnuts
1 tablespoon butter, or more
Chicken stock
Salt, pepper, herb d'provence or fresh herbs, to taste
1 tablespoon butter, or more
Grated cheese, optional

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a casserole and fill it with alternative layers of sprouts and chestnuts. Moisten lightly with stock and then season with salt, pepper and perhaps a sprinkle of herb d'provence or any fresh herbs you have on hand. Dot with butter if you wish before covering lightly with grated cheese. Bake uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes.

Chestnut Stuffing for Game

This is very European and very good with red meats or anything with a "wild" flavor. Traditional add-ons are: 1/2 cup liver sausage (Germany), or 1/4 cup chopped sausage (Italy), or 2 cups raw oysters (France). Makes about 4 cups plus any add-ons.

2 1/2 cup cooked chestnuts
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup cream or half-and-half
1 cup dry bread or cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon grated onion

Combine all of the ingredients, taste for seasoning and add any herbs that you wish. A small amount of something a bit gutsy like finely chopped tarragon, basil or rosemary works well.

Get crackin'!


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