Chestnuts… roasting on an open fire?

Arlene Ridolfi Valentine
October 31, 2007

Although I love the song that made them famous in the USA, there’s a lot more to chestnuts than just roasting. Just ask any Tuscan cook. In fact, the old Italian saying, ‘polenta saved the north, fish saved the south, and chestnuts saved the center’, refers to the poverty of long ago, when la cucina povera was the reality of life rather than a style of cooking.

 

Chestnuts were already growing in China and Japan long before Romans began to cultivate them around 35 BC by importing the plants from Kastanum (now Turkey). The name in Italian, castagna, comes from Kastanum.  

 

Because the trees are so strong and hearty, their crop provided a good source of nutrition in many parts of Italy at a time when wheat was not available.  Since chestnuts can be boiled, roasted, ground into flour and used as ingredients in other dishes, they were nothing short of a godsend at that time.

 

As far as nutrition goes, chestnuts offer a lot of positives. They are extremely low in fat and calories, but high in carbohydrates, which is why the flour is so nutritious. They are gluten free, high in potassium and are the only nuts that contain vitamin C.

 

Here’s a bit of practical advice (and lore) from Silvana, my local vegetable vendor and teacher:

 

Use your eyes when buying chestnuts—shiny, lovely color, no holes or discolorations.

 

If you are going to use chestnut flour for baking, buy the best. Stone ground, macinata a pietra, flour is very fine, almost like talc, and light beige in color. Commercially produced flour is darker and coarser because it was exposed to high temperatures during processing.

 

The Lucca/Garfagnana area, not far from Florence, produces an excellent quality flour.

 

Pochi funghi, poche castagne (‘few mushrooms, few chestnuts’): since they thrive in the same conditions, mushroom and chestnut harvests mirror each other.

 

 

Of the many ways to enjoy chestnuts, roasting and boiling figure prominently.  To roast, wash the nuts, cut an ‘x’ into the skin on the bulbous side and lay them out on an oven pan. Sprinkle the nuts with a little water and roast them in a hot oven for about 20 minutes or until the skins have begun to pull back from the cuts and the nutmeats have softened. Remove them from the oven, wrap them in a cloth, squeeze it a bit, and let them sit for a few minutes. Of course, if you have a fireplace and chestnut roaster, you can toast them over the flames. The procedure is the same, except you have to shake the pan to keep the chestnuts from burning.

 

To boil chestnuts, place them in a pan and cover well with cold water. Add a pinch of salt and some fennel seeds. Boil for 20 minutes. Let stand until cool. Transfer the nuts and the dark, aromatic liquid to a glass container and store in the refrigerator.  Enjoy as is—one bite and the shell opens and the chestnut pops out—or use the boiled nuts as an ingredient in other recipes.

Enjoy these recipes using chestnuts as a main dish and as a dessert.

 

Buon appetito!

 

 

 

Rabbit Stew with Chesnuts (FOR 4)

Pancetta, diced, 150 grams

Butter, 1 teaspoon

Flour

Rabbit, cut into small pieces, about 1 kilo

White wine, about half a cup

Onion, diced, 50 grams

Garlic, diced, 2 cloves

Vegetable broth, about 2 cups

Chestnuts, shelled and whole, 500 grams

Fresh sage, parsley and rosemary

Salt and pepper

 

In a large frying pan, sauté the pancetta in butter. Add the pieces of rabbit, first dipping them lightly in the flour. Brown slowly, turning often, and add the diced onion and garlic. Add the white wine and allow it to reduce by turning up the heat. 

 

Add the vegetable broth, chestnuts, a few sage leaves, some chopped parsley and salt.  Cook for about 30 minutes longer, until the rabbit is tender, adding more liquid if necessary. Garnish with rosemary and a bit of black pepper when serving. Good with polenta and a hearty red wine.

 

 

Castagnaccio

This is a classic Tuscan dessert cake.  It is dense, flavorful but not too sweet, and it is perfect served with a bit of cream and a dessert wine.

 

Chestnut flour, 500 grams

Warm water, about 1 liter

Sugar, 4 tablespoons

Salt, one pinch

Olive oil, about ¼ cup

Pine nuts, one handful

Raisins, 2 handfuls

Fresh rosemary

 

Preheat the oven to 220 C.  Place the raisins in a pan of warm water to soak while you prepare the cake batter. In a large bowl, add water to the flour and mix well.  Don’t use all of the water at once: it is best to see how the batter is forming before using it all. The batter for this cake should be quite liquid in texture, not much thicker than crêpe batter. Add the oil, sugar and salt and mix well. Prepare a cake pan (a rectangular one is best) by giving it a light coating of olive oil; use your hands to apply the oil.

 

Pour the dough through a strainer into the pan, a process that will eliminate any particles that may have remained in the ground flour. The batter should not be higher than about 1 to 2 inches in the pan; if it is too high, the cake will be too dense.

 

Sprinkle the pine nuts and raisins over the top of the batter and then scatter some fresh rosemary leaves over all. Drizzle a final, thin thread of olive oil over the mixture, and it is ready for the oven.

Bake the cake at 220C for about 10 minutes and then lower the heat to 200C for another 45 minutes or so. The cake is done when the top begins to have cracks in its surface and the sides are coming away from the sides of the pan.

 

 

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