Friday, October 02, 2009
Chestnuts from Girolami Farms - The Return of An American Treasure
Before the days of year-round available produce from high tech farmers and Southern Hemisphere countries, there was a seasonal quality to produce that defined that time of the year during my formative years.
Winter, especially at Christmas, was marked by big boxes of oranges and apples that church members gave to our family as gifts.
Spring meant strawberries, especially the huge, sweet, and scrumptious ones from Camarillo, California. Cherries signaled the beginning of summer. Peaches and watermelon were synonymous with the height of summer.
But autumn was truly autumn when on a cool evening, our family roasted chestnuts, with the sweet aroma filling our home, and we anxiously peeled the chestnuts, trying to be careful not to burn our fingers. It was a sweet, chewy, deeply satisfying taste that defined my childhood.
Chestnuts have not been a big part of American palates for a long time. It's a part of holiday lore in Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting in an Open Fire," most famously recorded by Nat "King" Cole, but I never knew anyone who ever actually did that. I saw recipes for turkey dressing that contained chestnuts, but again, I didn't know too many people who actually did that. When I visited New York on a vacation, there was the chestnut cart that had the cones of newspaper filled with chestnuts that Becky and I enjoyed.
Chestnuts are big in Asia. I have enjoyed tiny ones from China and Japan, and there are huge ones from Korea (which I actually like the least). Europeans use chestnuts extensively; traditionally, for example, hogs used to make prosciutto were fed chestnuts. I remember that in the film, "Amadeus," composer Salieri served Frau Mozart a special confection that only the aristocracy ate: Roman chestnuts in brandied sugar.
Chestnuts are so prominent that the description for brown color is used in many languages. Marron in French, often used to describe dark brown hair color, means chestnut. In Korea, the term for brown, pahm sekal, literally means "chestnut color" (incidentally, the word for orange in Korean is kahm sekal, or persimmon color).
What many don't know is that chestnut products were an incredibly significant source of sustenance in America in many ways. At one time, chestnut trees covered much of America, and were used as timber, fuel, and of course, food. Chestnuts are gluten free, high in fiber, high in nutritional value, low in fat, and versatile. Ground into flour, chestnuts can be used for cakes, bread, pancakes, etc. It is an ingredient for sweet or savory dishes, and can be used as a sweetener. The chestnut tree allowed many Americans to survive during difficult times. Some health food stores call them the perfect health food.
Unfortunately, a blight afflicted the millions of American chestnut trees, nearly wiping out the entire species. By the 1940's, only a few trees remained. Even if new ones were planted, it would take decades for a suitable crop, since chestnut trees yield their best nuts at 60 years of age.
For many years in America, most of the chestnuts one would see at the marketplace were from Italy. With immigration, the Asian varieties began to pop up here and there.
The problem for me was that I didn't care for the Korean variety (just didn't like the flavor somehow), the Japanese and Chinese ones were just too small, and the Italian chestnuts, which I love, would often have a high rate of spoilage, which was even worse when we moved to Hawaii.
Happily, there is now a good supply of delicious American chestnuts. For the past few years, I have ordered them from Girolami Farms, a family owned business in Stockton, California. I highly recommend them. Girolami Farms have wonderful chestnuts - large, sweet, with a nice texture. The great bonus: none of them were spoiled or had that green rot that is present in so many of the supermarket chestnuts I find.
They are $5.75 per pound for the jumbo (which I ordered), and $6.50 per pound for the colossal. The price may seem a little high (although in Hawaii, it isn't bad), but remember that the quality of the chestnuts is excellent and there is no waste from spoilage: what you pay for is what you get. They also have pre-cooked and peeled chestnuts, chestnut flour, and cookware specifically designed for chestnuts. There are also recipes and directions for preparing the chestnuts.
Here are some tips and info for cooking chestnuts: 1) I recommend roasting to boiling; boiling makes them easier to peel, but the flavor loss is noticeable. 2) The open fire method may be romantic, but is a lot of trouble and requires constant attention; so only do this if you are planning to monitor the cooking every second of the process! 3) It will take some experience to know when the chestnuts are cool enough to handle and peel, but not so cool that that the inner skin sticks to the nutmeat; I use an oven mitt to start the first ones straight out of the oven.
4) If using a chestnut knife (which does work well and you can order from Girolami Farms), I wear a bandage (in advance) on my thumb so I don't have to worry about the tip of the blade cutting me and I can work much faster. 5) Cooking times definitely vary, so even though the website says 15-20 minutes in a 375 degree oven, test one and make sure it has a light golden brown color and you can begin to smell the aroma. It shouldn't have any trace of a crisp texture (such as from a raw carrot or a water chestnut - which is completely unrelated to the chestnuts we've been talking about BTW) or have a slightly astringent taste. Properly cooked chestnuts have a unique texture that is tender but firm.
5. Make sure that you cut slits in them to avoid exploding nuts, release steam, and facilitate easier peeling. I usually cut an "X" on one or both sides and make sure that I cut into the tough hull a bit as well.
Order them directly from the website: http://www.chestnutsforsale.com
Grace and aloha,
P. S. One of the great things about chestnut time in our home growing up is that it was a communal event. Because there is a small window of time to peel the chestnuts before the inner skin sticks irretrievably to the nut (and then you would have to peel them with a knife, sacrificing nutmeat and aesthetics), we would all gather as a family and peel them together. As I look back, it was one of the few activities that everyone in the family took part in. Maybe that's why I have a nostalgic view on chestnuts: the warmth of the chestnuts warming up a cool autumn evening was made even more wonderful by the warmth of our family together, working on a common purpose.
Maybe that's why I'm so gung ho on the church. There is something simply unmatched by the connection of a community that comes together for a common purpose and a common experience. It's like no other place on earth.
Posted by Pastor Tom Choi at 8:33 AM