Cold autumn or winter nights and roasted chestnuts seem to go together. Chestnuts do however have a distinctive flavour and texture and can be used to give a unique taste to a wide range of dishes from starters to sweets. Chestnut soup is a winter classic and other equally delicious options are stir fries, casseroles, stuffing for meat and poultry, pastas, cakes and desserts.
Although chestnuts can be eaten raw after peeling, they are usually cooked in some way. Dried and ground, chestnuts make an excellent quality flour for bread, biscuits or gravies. They may also be frozen after cooking, and later thawed and used in various recipes. Chestnuts are very diverse in their culinary uses and many classic recipes are popular worldwide.
Traditionally, chestnuts are roasted over an open fire or in the oven, but they may also be cooked in the microwave, sandwich maker, hot plate, BBQ or frying pan, or under the grill.
- The fruit can be peeled and eaten raw, but it can be somewhat astringent, especially if the pellicle is not removed.
- Another method of eating the fruit involves roasting, which does not require peeling. Roasting requires scoring the fruit beforehand to prevent undue expansion and “explosion” of the fruit. Once cooked, its texture is similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet, and nutty flavour. This method of preparation is popular in northern China as well as in Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Slovenia, Croatia, Korea and Southeast Asia, where the scored chestnuts may be cooked in a tub of heated coal pebbles mixed with a little sugar.
- Chestnuts can also be peeled and deep fried. One advantage to this method is that any rotten nuts can be discarded at this stage. Deep fry using a basket until the nuts are just starting to float on the surface of the oil. Lift the basket out of the pan, keeping the lid on the basket. Shake the basket in a circular motion, then remove the lid and dry the nuts on newspaper or kitchen roll.
- Chestnuts can be dried and milled into flour, which can then be used to prepare breads, cakes, pancakes, pastas, polenta (known in Corsica as pulenda), or used as thickener for stews, soups, and sauces. In Corsica, the flour is fried into doughnut-like fritters called fritelli and made into necci, pattoni, castagnacci, and cialdi.
- The flour can be light beige like that from Castagniccia, or darker in other regions. It is a good solution for long storage of a nutritious food. Chestnut bread can stay fresh for as long as two weeks.
- The nuts can also be eaten candied, boiled, steamed, grilled, or roasted in sweet or savoury recipes. They can be used to stuff vegetables, poultry, fowl and other edibles. They are available fresh, dried, ground or canned (whole or in puree).
- A fine granular sugar can be obtained from the fermentation of the juice, as well as a beer; the roasted fruit provides a coffee substitute. Parmentier, who among other things was a famous potato promoter, extracted sugar from chestnuts and sent a chestnut sugarloaf weighing several pounds to the Academy of Lyon. The continental blockade following shortly after (1806–1814) increased the research into developing chestnuts as a source of sugar, but Napoleon chose beets instead.
- Candied chestnuts (whole chestnuts candied in sugar syrup, then iced) are sold under the French name marrons glacés or Turkish name kestane şekeri (“sugared chestnuts”). They appeared in France in the 16th century. Towards the end of 19th century, Lyon went into a recession with the collapse of the textile market, notably silk. Clément Faugier ingénieur des Ponts et Chaussées was looking for a way to revitalize the regional economy. In 1882 at Privas, he invented the technology to make marrons glacés on an industrial scale (although a great deal of the over-twenty necessary steps from harvest to the finished product are still accomplished manually). Chestnuts are picked in autumn, and candied from the start of the following summer for the ensuing Christmas. Thus the marrons glacés eaten at Christmas are those picked the year before.
- Sweet chestnuts are not easy to peel when cold. One kilogram of untainted chestnuts yields about 700 g of shelled chestnuts. Chestnut flavours vary slightly from one species to the next and can vary with growing conditions, but in general the flavour is somewhat sweet and certainly unique. Chestnut-based recipes and preparations are making a comeback in Italian cuisine, as part of the trend toward rediscovery of traditional dishes and better nutrition.
Before cooking, the most important step is to cut the shell to prevent the nut from exploding while cooking! Some people cut a slit across the face of the nut, others cut a cross into the pale end (hilum). We have found the best way to prepare chestnuts is to lie the chestnut on its flatter side and cut or score halfway around the outer shell. The cut should go full thickness through the shell, and perhaps the pellicle, but not into the flesh of the nut.
It is easier to peel chestnuts while they are still warm and damp. Wrap the cooked chestnuts in a tea towel to keep them warm while you are peeling the others. Remove the outer shell and also the inner brown skin or pellicle, as this can sometimes taste quite bitter. Boiled chestnuts are probably the easiest ones from which to peel the pellicle, though if you dry roast or grill them, it is not so important to remove all the pellicle prior to eating. Different varieties vary in their ease of peeling.
Cooking – the four basic cooking methods
Preheat oven to 200°C. Place chestnuts onto baking tray and bake for 10-15 minutes, turning after about 5 minutes, or until the shells split and the flesh is easily pierced with a pointed knife.
To pan roast or grill or barbeque
Cook (turning occasionally) in a pan over a medium heat, or under the grill, or on the BBQ for 10-12 minutes or until the shells split as above. It doesn’t matter if the outer shell turns black in parts as this will be removed prior to eating.
Place chestnuts in a single layer to cover a microwave-safe plate. Cook uncovered on 850watts / high / 100% for 2-3 minutes. It is very easy to overcook when microwaving, so beware, and start with less time to be on the safe side.
Place chestnuts into a pan of cold water, bring to the the boil, cover and simmer for 10-12 minutes or until flesh is tender.