“How do you feel about chestnuts?” I asked Jill, who was coming for dinner in a few days.
“Like…I like them roasting over an open fire? I actually have no idea!”
Though we sing about chestnuts roasting every year, and the lyrics help put us in that holiday spirit, how many of us actually eat these hearty nuts?
If my friend Jill, who samples an array of precise recipes daily at America’s Test Kitchen, cooks constantly, travels extensively and meets world class chefs as part of her job…if she had never eaten a chestnut, it’s safe to say very few people are eating these nuts. This begs the question, why do we sing nostalgically about this nut but not eat it?
The short answer is blight. Once upon a time, chestnut trees blanketed the east coast of the United States, covering some 200 million acres. Frost resistant and reliable, the tree was a major source of income for many a rural community, both as a source of food for livestock and as a timber source. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, blight, imported through Asian Chestnut Trees, devastated the eastern woodlands. If this feels like a dismal tale from the annals of food history, it is, BUT there’s a glimmer of hope too!
Fortunately, there are organizations and people working to restore the chestnut’s mighty presence. These history lessons are also valuable as more and more of us seek to improve the local food economy. If we spend more time examining our food and its sources, we can better mediate our local agricultural systems. For now, chestnuts cost a pretty penny in grocery stores, and their availability is limited (I hope you can still acquire some as I am sharing this in January!), but hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, every east coast grocery store will offer a regular bin of local chestnuts. Maybe I’ll even be gathering them at Hazelwood Urban Farms!
Here’s to chestnuts roasting on lots of open fires!
Roasted Chestnut Stuffing/Dressing
Recipe adapted from Sift magazine
Yield: 10 servings
About This Recipe: Vegetarians and carnivores can unite on this classic side dish thanks to chestnuts’ meaty flavor! For a more nutrient rich approach, I used a combination of Whole Wheat Sourdough and Mt. Athos Fire Bread (a local favorite- sub any dense, grainy bread). This recipe calls for baking the bread cubes to dry them, but you can also cube and save bread as it starts to harden to avoid wasting a loaf. To simplify the recipe, you can use pre-cooked chestnuts (like these), but roasting draws a lot of flavor. If you have more than 1 1/2 cups chestnuts after roasting and shelling, add them to the stuffing. That quantity is flexible.
~8 cups 1” whole grain bread cubes (I used *Mediterra Fire Bread + Whole Wheat Sourdough)
5 Tablespoons organic unsalted butter
2 cups organic celery, roughly chopped
1 large leek, roughly chopped
1 large red onion, roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped
2 Tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
3 1/2 cups organic, low-sodium chicken stock (use vegetable stock for vegetarian version)
3 large eggs (organic/cage-free)
1 1/2 cups roasted, shelled chestnuts, roughly chopped (from approximately 3/4-1lb whole chestnuts)
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Butter a 9×13” baking dish. Spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast them, stirring once after 8 minutes, until dry and crisp, about 15-20 minutes total. Remove from the oven and cool. Keep the oven set to 350°F.
Meanwhile, using a paring knife, make an incision in each chestnut about 1/8-inch deep through the shell and into the flesh, cutting almost all the way around nut.
Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet, and roast until chestnuts are tender when pierced with the paring knife, about 35 minutes. Turn off oven. Leaving sheet in oven, remove several chestnuts at a time. Working quickly, place each chestnut in a kitchen towel, and remove and discard shell and inner skin.
Note: Chestnuts and bread cubes can be prepared the night before.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Heat the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat.
Sauté the celery, leek, and onion until tender, about 8 minutes.
Add the thyme and rosemary and cook until fragrant, 1 minute. Cool.
Place the bread cubes, sauteed vegetables and remaining ingredients in a large bowl and, using your hands, mix until thoroughly combined.
Pour into the prepared dish and bake until golden brown, about 45-55 minutes.