When we moved into our house in Connecticut, we were very happy to find many medicinal plants and some mature chestnut trees.
The chestnut has always been a favorite treat of mine, yet I had never seen them growing. They drop from the tree when ripe in a little ball of green spikes, much like porcupine quills. They are very nasty to step on or to touch. Ideally, the spikey pod will open on impact with the ground, and two or three perfect, shiny, brown chestnuts will roll out, waiting on you to gather them. More often, the pod opens on the tree and drops its bounty, letting squirrels have their own gathering party. Chestnuts are ready in our area about the first two weeks of October. They are available in most areas from September to late February.
Once, a Yale University professor from a local university came to the door and asked if he might study some of our trees. He was hoping they were survivors of the blight (Endothia parasitica), which is the quick spreading bark disease brought to New York by a shipment of Asian chestnut saplings in 1890. The American chestnut was estimated in the billions and covered the country from Maine to Florida and west to Arkansas.
By 1940, the American chestnut, said to have a sweeter flavor than European varieties, was virtually gone. The professor took samples of our trees and determined that they were a combination of the American and Chinese chestnut. He told us that the combination trees like ours survived because they were so deep into the woods that it took longer for the blight to reach them, but by that time the combination saplings had taken hold.
Today the American Chestnut Society is restoring the American chestnut through a program of cross breeding with fungus resistant hybrids. These resistant trees are being planted in forests where the chestnuts had their original territory. This is a very valid and noble endeavor, yet it might take awhile to get back up to the billion range in numbers.
In Native America, there is pre-historic evidence that our ancestors used the nut as a flour for breads. In Asia today, canned chestnuts are relatively inexpensive and available. In Europe, especially France and Italy, whole canned chestnuts are used in a variety of ways, sometimes as garnish or pureed for use in soups, or as a thickener mixed into stuffings, or candied in syrup for use in desserts.
My favorite way to eat them is simply roasted. I cut a cross in the rounded side and roast flat on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for about a half hour, then poke them with a skewer to see if they are soft enough. If not, I up the temperature to 400 degrees for another 10 minutes. Let them cool just a few minutes until you can handle them. Peel the outer shell and skin, if any, and devour. A little salt and some butter may or may not be necessary.
To use them in recipes, they need to be peeled and simmered. Cut the cross as for roasting and place them in a pan and cover with cold water. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, then let them cool off as the water cools. When cool enough to handle, remove a few and take off the shell with the help of a paring knife. Use them whole, or crumble for recipes.
Chestnuts are relatively low in calories and fat compared to other nuts. They are rich in minerals, vitamins and phyto-nutrients.
1 pound (12-14 large) chestnuts roasted, cooled, peeled and pureed
1 small onion, chopped fine
Boiled water and enough cornmeal (about 1 cup) or more if needed to hold mixture together.
Make burger shaped patties and sauté in a small amount of light oil until golden on each side. Drain, salt and eat. DO NOT add salt before cooking as it causes cornmeal to crumble.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.