Like peanut butter and jelly, chestnuts and Christmas seem to go hand in hand. With half the calories of other nuts, the lowest fat content of all the main edible nuts, and high fiber content, it’s no wonder that chestnuts continue to make a great, guilt-free addition to any holiday meal. More like cereal grain in carbohydrate content than other nuts, chestnuts shine when made into flour, are great boiled or roasted, and expertly spruce up any celebratory dish. Enjoyed worldwide, chestnuts are used in a variety of edible fare, ranging from soups to desserts to baked goods.
But not every detail about the American chestnut is festive. Once a major food and timber source in the U.S., the American chestnut tree suffered a terrible loss when nearly the entire crop perished as a result of a fungus accidentally introduced from the Orient in 1904. Within 40 years, more than 3.5 billion chestnuts were destroyed. Fading from our landscape for half a century, the American chestnut became nearly extinct. That is, until plant pathologists began developing blight-resistant versions of the American tree.
Thanks to the groundbreaking work of the American Chestnut Foundation, created in support of a breeding technique called backcrossing (crossing an American chestnut with a Chinese chestnut and then crossing it again with an American chestnut), it is hoped that the American chestnut tree will slowly re-establish its place in the forest. The past few decades of backcrossing have resulted in fields of blight-resistant trees with fifteen-sixteenths American heritage.
Harvested with methods similar to those used for pecans, hazelnuts and walnuts, chestnuts are shaken from the trees and collected in nets or by hand. Because chestnuts are high in moisture, they are harvested every two to three days to prevent mold growth. Their moisture content also makes them perishable, so chestnuts should be refrigerated. In proper storage, at about 32° F, chestnuts will last for up to six months. Harvest extends for about 10 to 14 days each season.
Though not as catchy a tune as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” the easiest method of cooking chestnuts is boiling. For this method, chestnuts should be cut in half and boiled for 10 to 15 minutes. The kernels come out easily after the nuts are drained and allowed to cool. For the more traditional prep method, chestnuts can be roasted over a fire, in the microwave for about two to three minutes (cut in half), or in the oven for about 15 minutes at about 300 degrees. The shell must be punctured before cooking to allow steam to escape during the heating process. And of course, chestnuts have to be peeled before eating.
Today, there are fewer than 500 acres of chestnut orchards in the U.S., so we import $20 million worth of chestnuts annually to meet consumer demand (that’s equivalent to 10,000 acres of producing chestnut orchards). The good news, however, is that we’re getting there. The new American trees should be dropping their own nuts in about 12 years. Now that’ll be something to sing about.
Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.
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