Chestnut: The Bread Tree, Part 4 of 4
Chestnuts are not a normal nut at all. They are low in oils and fats, and extremely high in carbohydrates and minerals. On a nutritional level, chestnuts are more similar to brown rice than to a walnut. Because of their high starch content, chestnuts have been a staple in the diets of people wherever they have grown.
They can be eaten and prepared so many different ways, I can only hope to illuminate on a few of them here. The possibilities for chestnuts as a food are totally endless. In the kitchen chestnuts are as versatile as corn.
When chestnuts first fall from the tree they can be quite bland, they need to be cured to sweeten up. If chestnuts are stored in plastic bags in the fridge, curing takes a couple of weeks. As time goes on the nuts will get sweeter and sweeter until late winter when they start to sprout. If stored at room temperature, chestnuts will cure within a few days. There is no harm in eating chestnuts right off the tree, but there true flavor will not come out until after being cured.
Keeping chestnuts from drying out is essential for chestnuts that are to be roasted. They can be stored in plastic bags in the fridge. Check to make sure that excessive moisture does not build up in the bag, and vent the bag if necessary. Fresh chestnuts can also be packed in moist sawdust in a root cellar. They can keep in the fridge or root cellar for months until they begin sprouting around early spring.
Freezing chestnuts will kill the nuts and alter the flavor. It is not horrible, and they are still edible, but it is less than ideal.
If chestnuts are to be dried or ground into flour, they can be hung in onion sacks and stored at room temperature indefinitely.
Roasted chestnuts are a great treat during fall and winter. There is no reason why American city streets are not full of vendors pushing carts of hot roasted chestnuts. My family particularly enjoys eating roasted chestnuts in the woods, cooked on a bed of hot coals. At home, we set chestnuts on top of the wood stove for about 5 minutes on each side. It is okay if the shells burn a little, the nut is usually fine inside. I prefer them that slightly over-cooked.
Recommended cooking times and temps vary, but there is no wrong way to roast a chestnut. Cook it less and it will be crunchier, longer and it’ll be softer.
The shell needs to be sliced into, otherwise the nut can sometimes explode as steam inside is trying to escape. Slicing the shell also makes peeling a lot easier. Many people slice an “x” shape into the shell, but all that is necessary is one slice across the middle. Try not to cut through the whole nut, just through shell. A very sharp knife helps, and a chestnut knife is very safe and useful. A chestnut knife is curved like a hook and is specifically made for cutting rounded nuts. Chestnut knives are inexpensive and readily available online.
Drying and Peeling
Drying chestnuts allows them to be used in so many different ways, from soup thickeners, to stuffing, to a versatile flour. I have found the easiest way to dry chestnuts is in the shell, by hanging them in onion sacks over the wood stove. It can take a few weeks of hanging for the nuts to be totally dried. At which point, the shells will be very brittle.
Once the in-shell nuts are dry, I run them through the dave-bilt nutcracker. It is a small hand powered device made for shelling hazelnuts and pecans, but works well on dried chestnuts and acorns. You can also crack open the shells, by simply crushing the dried nuts with a wooden stomper. Either way you will have to separate out the shells and pellicles (the skin between the nut and the shell) either by winnowing or by picking out the nutmeats by hand.
An alternative method is to peel them and then dry the nut meats. Cut the chestnut in half and steam them for about one minute. While they are still hot, they will pop right out of the shell by squeezing them with a pair of pliers or with your fingers. This method easily removes the pellicle very well. The peeled chestnuts can then be dried for later grinding, or they can be ground up while still wet, and the meal then dried.
Flour and Meal
There are flour mills specifically made for handling chestnuts, but they are generally a sizable investment. You can grind up chestnuts in an ordinary corn meal grinder. If the resulting meal is then sifted, you will have a pile of fine flour and one of coarse meal.
The coarse meal is an excellent soup thickener or can be boiled just like grits or oatmeal. Chestnut meal can also be mixed into any stuffing recipe and adds so much to it.
The flour is an excellent ingredient for so many baked goods. It does wonders for the consistency of cakes particularly. Chestnut flour is also great in cookies, biscuits, and breads. It will not rise like wheat, so in many recipes, chestnut flour replaces 50% of the wheat flour, instead of 100%. Experimentation is highly encouraged. Chestnut flour is sweet and delicious by itself. It holds together when wet, so it can turn into dough
I have not tried chestnut flour pasta yet, but it is a real product that I would love to learn more about.
Livestock and Wildlife
Roughly 90% of our corn and soy fields exist to feed livestock. We could cut the need to grow feed by planting chestnut trees in and around pastures. The animals can harvest the mast with no work or processing on our part. Livestock can also be rotated through chestnut orchards after harvest to clean up any leftovers, thereby significantly diminishing pest populations.
Commercial chestnut varieties are easy for pigs, sheep, and cows to eat, but they are too big for poultry. Allegheny chinquapins are much smaller and can be harvested by most poultry without any processing.
Chestnut trees attract and feed a lot of wildlife, including highly valued game animals like turkeys and deer. Every year, hunters grow food plots of alfalfa, clover, and turnips to attract deer, but a few established chestnut trees would accomplish the same goal without the need for replanting.
Chestnuts can be turned into meat, just like corn and soy. They are a staple crop in every sense of the word.
When properly handled and prepared, chestnuts are delicious. Right now they are a high priced specialty item, but that is only because more people are not yet growing and eating chestnuts in large quantities. We can actually accomplish amazing goals, like reversing climate change, improving wildlife habitat, protecting watersheds, and increasing bio-diversity simply by eating more chestnuts. There is no good reason for our city streets, parks, yards, hedgerows, and farms to not be filled with chestnut trees. Every fall kids and growers of all scale can be busy filling bins with the fruits of these generous trees.