Seasonal Flavors: Chestnuts

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Chestnut

A beautiful Chinese chestnut tree hangs over our deck. I’ll admit to having a love/hate relationship with this tree, which was planted by friends about thirty years ago.

The tree produces long string-like flowers in the spring that provide a beautiful fragrance during the evening Happy Hour. But once there is a heavy rain, down come all those flowers, creating a big, slimy mess to clean up.

Next, it leafs out, creating wonderful shade, yet with branches high enough above the table to produce a canopy for dining.  That’s usually great, except for last year when the tree was infested with some kind of something that chewed the leaves to lace. These we spent the entire summer sweeping up.

Then in September, the chestnut hulls ripen and brown into spiky, dangerous wonders of nature. They fall in profusion. You can’t pick them up without kitchen tongs. If you step on one, it’s beyond horribly painful. Every year, despite repeated warnings, someone does.

During the first chestnut drop, the hulls split and we can retrieve very nice, ripe chestnuts.  After that, for several weeks, the deck and yard are littered with what I call ‘the duds’.  These hulls have no nuts, yet fall in abundance. We sweep. Then we sweep again. Once we were relaxing at the table and a huge hull fell, kerplunck, straight into my brother’s wine glass.

And then of course, the leaves turn yellow and fall from the tree. We sweep some more.

I usually roast these first chestnuts and we enjoy peeling and eating them. Apparently there are some nice, French desserts that can be made with chestnut ‘mousse,’ but I’ve never found a recipe that I like. I roasted, hulled, saved them in the freezer and added them to the Thanksgiving stuffing one year. I don’t think it was worth the effort; I couldn’t taste them.

Then last year we travelled to Biaritz, France, to visit some friends. There, in September, it was also chestnut season. We spent a morning shelling the roasted nuts while I tried to follow the French conversation (mostly without success).

Our friend prepared sautéed duck breast for the Sunday lunch, and after frying the duck, took the shelled, already roasted chestnuts and sautéed them in the duck fat. Well now, at last, here is the way to eat these tasty morsels!

Last month, in this column, I described the joys of roasting a duck. One of the by-products is the luscious fat released by that roasted duck. Use the leftover duck fat for frying some chestnuts. If you don’t have your own tree, you will likely be able to find chestnuts soon in the local markets and groceries. I highly recommend that you try this:

Chestnuts in Duck Fat

  • 1 lb chestnuts
  • ½ cup duck fat

Score the chestnuts with a knife by cutting an ‘X’ in the shell, to prevent the nuts from exploding during the roasting process.  Place the nuts on a shallow baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes at 400°F.

Remove from the oven, cool and remove the nuts from the shell and de-skin.

Melt the duck fat in a fry pan and heat till a drop of water dropped into the pan sizzles. Add the chestnuts. The duck fat will foam around the chestnuts. Fry for 5-7 minutes till golden browned. Remove to a serving dish, sprinkle with flaked salt and serve warm as a side dish.  Very autumnal!  

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