11 December 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Mighty Chestnut

CHIAVARI, Italy - As we inch closer and closer to Christmas street vendors in Italy have started selling roasted chestnuts in the piazzas of most Italian towns. Truthfully, the warm paper cones filled with hot off the fire chestnuts are pretty hard to resist, especially if the weather is nippy.
Chestnuts Roasting in the Piazza 
Up to now, what I knew about chestnuts was that I liked them. They have been part of my Christmas memories for as long as I can remember, and it’s only recently that I discovered that those little round bundles of nutty creaminess are much more than mere hand warmers and belly fillers.

These five facts were a complete surprise to me.

1. Chestnuts are true nuts unlike almonds and cashews, which technically are fruits.

2. Chestnuts are nutritious.  They are high in manganese, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and copper. The trace mineral copper found in chestnuts increases bone strength, helps form red blood cells, promotes nerve function and boosts your immune system. Eat them with dried prunes for a snack high in copper.
Sweet Treat
3. Chestnuts are packed with soluble B vitamins, which among other good things, enhances brain function.  Three ounces of chestnuts gives you the recommended daily value of B-6, 15 percent of folate, 14 percent of thiamine and 9 percent of riboflavin.  Eat them with a leafy green salad and lean meat for a vitamin and mineral packed meal.

4. Chestnuts are low in fat and high in fiber. In 3.5 ounces of chestnuts you’ll get 4 grams of fiber but only 2.2 grams of fat.

5. Chestnuts have a high content of the trace mineral manganese – an antioxidant. It soaks up free radicals in your system and reduces the risk o cancer and heart disease. Manganese helps with the production of connective tissues and blood clotting, and helps reduce the effects of the aging process. Try adding chopped chestnuts to a bowl of oatmeal for a healthy manganese-packed breakfast.
Picture Perfect
Cooking Chestnuts

While there are many ways to cook chestnuts, the most classic way is to roast them on top of the stove or in the oven.  It’s easy to do. The only equipment you need is a chestnut pan, which looks like a regular frying pan except there are holes on the bottom of it. No chestnut pan? That’s okay. A regular frying pan will do. For oven roasting, you’ll need a shallow oven proof pan.

Top of the Stove Chestnuts

Step number one is to wash your chestnuts under running water and dry them with a towel. Then, with a sharp knife, or a pair off sharp pointed scissors, cut an X on the round side of each chestnut. This is to insure that the chestnuts don’t explode while they are cooking.

If you are using a chestnut pan with holes in it, it will take about 15 minutes over medium heat for the chestnuts to cook. It’s important to stir or shake them often so they cook uniformly. At the end of the cooking process, when you see they are burned in just the right places, taste one to make sure it is thoroughly cooked before you take the entire pan off of the heat. Cooking time may vary depending on the size of the chestnuts.    

 Wrap Them in a Damp Tea Towel
When the chestnuts are cooked, wrap them with a damp tea towel and tuck the tea towel underneath the pan and leave them covered for about 10 minutes. This simple step will make your chestnuts a lot easier to peel.

Oven Roasted Chestnuts

To roast them in the oven will take about 40 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit/200 degrees Celsius. Cut an X in on the flat side of each washed and dried chestnut, and put them in an oven proof baking dish. It’s best not to overcrowd them, so one layer is best. Stir and turn them often while they are cooking so that they cook evenly. Before you take them out off the oven, taste one to make sure they are thoroughly cooked. When they are cooked, take them out of the oven and wrap them in a damp tea towel for ten minutes, as described above.

Boiled Chestnuts

To boil chestnuts, cut an X on the flat side of each one and place them in a pot of cold water.  Bring the water to a boil and let the chestnuts simmer for about 15 to 25 minutes. It’s a good idea to test one before you drain them to make sure they are thoroughly cooked. Then drain them, and peel them as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Boiled chestnuts are a little hard to peel when they are cold. Boiling them is an easy way to prepare chestnuts you are going to use in other dishes, like bread dressing for chicken or turkey or if you are going to pair them with Brussel sprouts.

 Easier to Peel When Warm
Microwave Chestnuts

Last but not least you can cook them in your microwave. After you have cleaned them, and cut an X in them, put them in a microwave dish and zap them uncovered for 2 or 3 minutes so on a high setting. Cooking time may vary because of size and the number of chestnuts you are cooking. A single layer of chestnuts works best.

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