Chestnut vendors appearing on New York City street corners are a sure sign that the Christmas season has arrived. The aroma of roasting nuts permeates the air, making them almost impossible to resist. Try holding one in your bare hand and you'll need to toss it around to keep from being burned. But in the crisp, cold air, it doesn't take long before it's cool enough to peel and enjoy.
There aren't any chestnuts vendors on the streets of Los Angeles, but when nights get nippy and there's a log burning in the fireplace, a few chestnuts roasted in the embers can be just as satisfying. Or stop by the booth in Farmer's Market at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue and buy freshly roasted Chinese chestnuts on a chilly morning or evening.
The Chinese variety are smaller and have a much sweeter taste. Only in the past year or so have they also become available at Los Angeles area Chinese grocery stores, so you can do your own roasting.
Most of the markets' larger fresh chestnuts are imported from Italy, although a small number grown here in California do reach our stores. (Please see related article on Page 12.)
We didn't always import most of our chestnuts. Until a blight early in this century killed most American chestnut trees, forests throughout the East provided an ample supply of nuts. The disease was accidentally introduced to the East Coast from the Orient in 1904, and spreading at the rate of about 20 miles a year, killed an estimated 3.5 billion chestnuts trees over the next half century.
After years of research, however, species resistant to the blight have been developed and chestnut trees are once again growing in many areas of the United States. Only here in California, however, are enough being grown to harvest commercially.
In Italy, many of the chestnuts trees grow in walled parks, according to Peter Kopke, whose father started a company in Lake Success, N.Y. that has imported fresh Italian chestnuts for the past 51 years. The city of Avellino, near Salerno, is the center of production. "In that area you see hundreds of walled parks all over the hills," said Kopke.
Although roasted chestnuts are delicious for out-of-hand snacking, they also may be used in a variety of recipes. Today's sampling ranges from breakfast pancakes to soup, stuffing and an incredibly decadent chocolate dessert.
We tested several ways of preparing fresh Italian and California chestnuts, but the most successful method came from Kopke. For easiest peeling, he suggests not only cutting an X in the flat side of the nut, but also making another cut completely around the outer rim between the flat and curved side.
The nuts are then ready to be roasted, blanched or boiled. Kopke said salt plays an important part in removing the inner skin of the chestnut.
ROASTING: Place prepared chestnuts in shallow pan with small amount of water. Sprinkle liberally with salt and roast at 400 degrees 20 to 30 minutes, turning frequently. Remove and cool enough to handle, then peel off shells and inner skins.
The nuts may also be roasted in an open fire as long as you have something to rake them out of the coals with, or in a chestnut roasting pan. Or try roasting them on an outdoor grill.
BLANCHING: Cover chestnuts with cold water and add one to two teaspoons salt per pound of chestnuts. Bring to boil and boil 1 minute. Drain nuts and peel off shells and inner skins while still warm. If some nuts are difficult to peel, boil again briefly.
BOILING: Proceed the same as for blanching, but boil 20 minutes or until thoroughly cooked.
The smaller Chinese chestnuts may simply be roasted in a toaster oven at 350 degrees about 10 minutes. When cool enough to handle, make a break in the shell with your fingernail, then crush the nut between your fingers and peel.
Food Styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane
MARGARET CLARK'S GUENOC WINERY CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT GATEAU
2 cups crumbled canned chestnut puree
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup brandy
1/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
3 eggs, well beaten
2 tablespoons flour
Line bottom of 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper. Butter pan sides and parchment paper.
Melt 1/4 cup butter in small saucepan. Slowly incorporate well into chestnut puree in medium bowl. Add honey, brandy and cream and continue mixing until thoroughly blended.
Melt chocolate in top of double boiler over simmering water. When melted, but only lukewarm, add 1/2 at time to chestnut mixture, mixing well at low speed. Add eggs and blend well, still at low speed. Stir in flour, mixing well.
Pour into prepared pan and bake at 300 degrees 35 minutes or until just sent in center. Remove from oven and cool completely in pan on rack.
Unmold onto plate just before serving. Serve with Honey Sauce. Makes 16 servings.
Note: If chestnut puree is not available, 1 (8 3/4-ounce) can chestnut spread (sweetened) may be substituted for 2 cups puree and 1/4 cup honey.
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons honey
3 eggs yolks, well beaten