Horse chestnut (left) has a more fleshy pod but the nuts, which are more round in shape, are toxic. Edible chestnuts (right) have a tassel on one end. (Peggy Choucair photo on the left) (Matthias Böckel photo on the right)

Horse chestnut (left) has a more fleshy pod but the nuts, which are more round in shape, are toxic. Edible chestnuts (right) have a tassel on one end. (Peggy Choucair photo on the left) (Matthias Böckel photo on the right)

ON COOKING: Chef Dez warms up to the idea of chestnuts

Chestnuts are high in fibre and low in fat, compared to other nuts

Chef Dez/Special to The News

I still remember the first time I tried roasted chestnuts.

It was on a cold winter afternoon while strolling past all of the decorative lights and stores on Robson Street in Vancouver. We came across a street vendor selling these heated little goodies and decided to give them a try. They were incredible.

A comforting buttery nut with a flavour uniquely their own, still encased in their shell but scored to ease the task of peeling. I couldn’t have found anything better at the time.

Grasping a warm paper sack of roasted chestnuts while the crisp winter air surrounded us was reminiscent of a classic Christmas story.

As a child, I always came across chestnuts scattered on the ground amidst the fallen autumn leaves, and never thought twice about them. Now I have a completely different outlook.

I purchase chestnuts fresh from the local supermarket when they’re in season, on a regular basis. When selecting them, choose ones that feel heavy and dense for their size and have a shiny outer brown shell that does not collapse when pushed upon.

They will keep at room temperature in a cool dark area for about a week, and for approximately one month in the refrigerator in a plastic bag. Alternatively, they can also be frozen for up to six months.

Purchasing them from a reputable supplier is recommended if you are unfamiliar with chestnuts, as there is a wild variety named “horse chestnuts” that are inedible.

Preparing them for roasting is a bit tedious but well worth the effort. While your oven is preheating to 425 degrees F, score the brown shell with a sharp knife. Place the flat side of the chestnut down on a cutting board and cut an “x” shape carefully on the rounded side facing upwards. I find that a fine-toothed serrated knife works best.

Keeping the shell on while cooking is important for holding in their warmth upon serving. Seal them with a few tablespoons of water in aluminum foil and roast for approximately 50 minutes. Be careful of the escaping hot steam when unwrapping them and serve immediately.

Alternatively, place approximately eight of the scored chestnuts in a bowl and microwave for approximately one to one and a half minutes.

The shelling process afterwards is not only made easier by cooking them, but also adds to the nostalgic amusement of eating this wonderful treat.

Chestnuts are not similar to others in the nut family, as they are more perishable and their fat content is significantly less. With only 2 or 3 grams of fat per 100g, chestnuts weigh in far less than other nuts that may contain upwards of 30 to 70 grams of fat per 100g.

Chestnuts also have approximately one third of the calories of other nuts and are a much greater source of dietary fibre. One of the downsides to chestnuts however, is that their starchier content contributes to a much higher carbohydrate count compared to other nuts.

The chestnut tree is actually related to the oak tree and can live to be up to 500 years. They usually measure approximately 50 feet in height but can grow to be over 100 feet tall. Chestnut wood, like oak, is much sought after for furniture building for its fine grains and hard composition.

Make this wonderfully historic treat part of your holiday season this year, and you may catch yourself humming “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

Dear Chef Dez,

I see that the local grocery store is selling fresh chestnuts again in the produce section. What could I do with these if I were to buy some?

Hellen S., Chilliwack

Dear Hellen,

As described above, roasting them is a classic treat. However, there are many recipes that one could use chestnuts in. They can be added to soups, salads, and are a great addition to stuffing for a holiday meal. Chestnut puree is also often used in the making of many types of different desserts. Research the internet or your local library for some fantastic ideas.

.

– Chef Dez is a food columnist and culinary instructor in the Fraser Valley. Visit him at www.chefdez.com. Send questions to dez@chefdez.com or to P.O. Box 2674, Abbotsford, B.C. V2T 6R4

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