Chestnuts are a Christmas icon, thanks in no small measure to Nat King Cole’s mellifluous crooning about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
While chestnuts are very much alive and roasting in the popular imagination, they are seldom found on our holiday tables. This is a pity, especially for a nut that’s so versatile and nutritious. But now is the perfect time to reintroduce them, with the American chestnut tree on the verge of a comeback after near-extinction.
Until the turn of the 20th century, there were an estimated 4 billion towering chestnut trees, the “sequoia of the east,” growing from Maine to Georgia. Newspapers were full of recipes for the ubiquitous nuts, and American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about them often, including in his journal entry of Dec. 31, 1852: “Now is the time for chestnuts. A stone cast against the trees shakes them down in showers upon one’s head and shoulders.”
Soon after Thoreau’s death, however, a deadly fungus was introduced to North America via Asiatic chestnut imports. By the mid-1900s, nearly all American chestnut trees were dead or dying.
American chestnuts back from the brink
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But steadfast scientists and ardent amateurs have been working to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut tree through decades of back-crosses with the resistant Chinese chestnut and targeted biotechnology.
Even though they are closing in on success, defeating the chestnut blight is only half the battle. The other half is in the hands of the scientists seeking to re-establish the tree in the wild and in the hands of the farmers who will once again make American-grown chestnuts available to consumers.
Hybrids that are 15/16ths American chestnut, as well as Chinese and Japanese varieties, are already being grown across the U.S., and chestnut grower associations and cooperatives are emerging. Many sites, including Chestnut Growers of America, USA Chestnut, Inc. and Chestnut Growers, Inc., provide contact information for growers near you and the ability to order chestnuts online.
A tradition steeped in nostalgia
Although nostalgia may play a role in the chestnut renaissance, there are many good reasons to seek out local chestnuts. As heartwarming as the Christmas song is, the chestnuts themselves are even more heart-healthy. Unlike walnuts, pecans and other tree nuts high in fat, chestnuts are nearly fat free. They are also the only nut with a significant amount of vitamin C and are a good source of iron, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates and fiber.
Chestnuts are also extremely versatile, adding an earthy touch to soups and stuffings and an elegant note to cakes and tarts. For the holidays, seek out the classic marrons glacés — chestnuts cooked in sugar syrup — or the French Christmas extravaganza, Bûche de Noël, a chocolate log filled with chestnut purée. Not to be outdone by the French, the Italians have Montebianco, a rich chestnut purée topped with whipped cream, and the Japanese have kuri kinton, mashed chestnuts and sweet bean paste.
But for me, the ultimate celebration of the chestnut is doing what the song says: roasting them. If you don’t have an open fire handy, use your oven or a skillet on your stove top.
Roast your own chestnuts in three easy steps
- Find fresh chestnuts and keep them refrigerated until ready to roast. (Most chestnuts are imported from China, but you can seek out fresh U.S.-grown chestnuts from the sources mentioned above.)
- Cut an X into the shell of each nut with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape during cooking and prevent explosions.
- Roast chestnuts in the oven, on the stove top or in an open fire — just make sure you score the shells or you’ll have to change the lyrics to “Chestnuts exploding on an open fire . . .”
Roasting in the oven: Place chestnuts on a cookie sheet X side up, and put in a preheated 400 F oven for 10 to 30 minutes (depending on the size and freshness of the nuts and the temperature and type of your oven, e.g. convection or not). Keep an eye on them — when the shell peels back and the meat is a caramel color, they’re done and will be moist and easy to peel.
Roasting on the stove top: Heat a heavy skillet over low to medium heat until hot. Toss scored chestnuts with about 1 teaspoon vegetable oil in a large bowl, then put the chestnuts in the hot pan and cover. Cook for 15 minutes, removing the cover and stirring every 5 minutes. Then add 1/4 cup water and continue to roast, covered, stirring occasionally, until water is evaporated and chestnuts are tender, about 5 minutes more.
Roasting on an open fire: Put the scored chestnuts in a long-handled popcorn popper or chestnut roaster. You can use a cast-iron skillet, but be careful not to burn yourself. Hold the roaster (or pan) over the fire, shaking it every few minutes to roast all sides of the nuts. They’re done when the shells peel back.
Main photo: After nearing extinction, American chestnuts are poised for a comeback. Credit: Copyright 2015 Amanda Christenson