By Barbara Kobsar | Illustrations by Charmaine Koehler-Lodge
Holiday cliché aside, chestnuts are a culinary highlight of the season as they add depth to soups, salads, entrées, and desserts. When chestnuts are dried and ground into flour, they make a welcome baking alternative for anyone with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or wheat allergy.
In 1904, when a chestnut blight came to North America, 3 to 4 billion native chestnut trees died in just 50 years, and the species remains virtually extinct. An important food source was lost, as was a rot-resistant wood used for poles, fences, building materials, and railroad ties. With the development of hybrid varieties, the nuts are now generally available during the last few months of the year.
Chestnuts grow inside spiny burrs on the trees that split open when ripe to reveal one-to-three nuts that are covered in leathery shells. You must remove these shells as well as the thin, bitter layer of brown skin to get to the wrinkly, cream-colored nutmeats. The freshest chestnuts are heavy for their size, firm and shiny with smooth shells.
Ever wondered if water chestnuts or horse chestnuts are related? The answer is that they are not. The deliciously edible water chestnut is not a nut at all, but a vegetable tuber. The horse chestnut is poisonous. While it might look like the edible type with its bumpy green shell around a round, glossy nut, it has neither the telltale flat side where the nuts pair up nor the tassel-tipped pointy end of the edible chestnut.
Brussels sprouts look like baby cabbages, and they are related to cabbages (as are other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, collard greens, and turnips). No longer America’s least favorite vegetable, the sprout now plays a starring role shaved for raw salads or charred as a side dish. A delicious warm Brussels sprout salad topped with a poached egg has always been a hit with me. Farmers’ markets are the place to go for mild-flavored, just-picked sprouts and whole stalks covered in plenty of these tasty orbs.
If you plan to cook the sprouts in an inch of boiling water (which takes 6 to 7 minutes), you might first cut them in half. If you leave them whole, you could try the time-honored technique of cutting an X in the trimmed stem ends, which helps let in heat to cook the centers of the sprouts. Drain and serve with butter and chopped dill or basil.
I prefer roasting and use about ¼ pound of sprouts per person. Trim off ends, discard any yellow outer leaves, and cut in half vertically if the sprouts are large. Toss in a bowl with 2 tablespoons olive oil per pound, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and slide the sprouts onto a baking sheet. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes in a 400°F oven. Turn the sprouts in the pan a few times to brown evenly. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese if desired. ♦
Veteran journalist and cookbook author Barbara Kobsar focuses on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. Find her at the Walnut Creek, Orinda, and San Ramon farmers’ markets selling her Cottage Kitchen jams and jellies made from farmers’ market produce.
Artist Charmaine Koehler-Lodge grows most of her family’s food in their rural Pennsylvania garden.