The northern hemisphere has laid claim to the chestnut for much of its culinary history, with the classic image of open fires on which the shiny nut is roasted more Charles Dickens than Miles Franklin. But now the southern hemisphere is entering the global picture, with a growing season that lasts from mid-March to July, enabling growers to supply fresh chestnuts in the northern hemisphere off-season. In New Zealand chestnut orchards can be found in the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Auckland areas. Newer orchards are being established in Northland, Wairarapa, Levin and Canterbury.
Although chestnuts are available all year round as ground, dried, pureed or vacuum-packed, fresh is definitely best if you are going to roast them. Look for firm, brown and glossy outer shells.
Fresh chestnuts can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 10 days. Once cooked and peeled, they can also be frozen for use out of season, but you wouldn’t want to use them for roasting, rather they could be boiled or cooked in the microwave for use in soups. When fresh aren’t available, the next best option would be vacuum-packed chestnuts sold whole and unbroken in cans.
The easiest way to eat chestnuts is to roast, grill or barbecue them. First carefully make a cut through the outer shell to prevent the nut from overheating and bursting while cooking. Cook for 25-30 minutes on medium heat, turning after 15 minutes. Remove from heat and wrap in a towel or newspaper for 5 minutes. Remove the shell and the inner skin (pellicle) underneath while they are still warm. You can also boil chestnuts, cutting them in half across the width and then simmering for about 20 minutes until the flesh is tender. Once cooked, they are easily added to stir-fries, mashed potatoes, lentil or risotto dishes for added taste, texture and nutrition.
Unlike other nuts, which usually come with a warning about fat content, chestnuts have almost none and about one-third the kilojoules of most nuts. Plus they’re high in dietary fibre, potassium, folate and vitamin C. So whether you puree them to make pies, ice cream or cakes or toss whole roasted chestnuts into winter soups, stews or pasta, you’ll be adding a dose of goodness for the whole family.
For more recipes, like Duck with Spiced Chestnuts & Figs or Monte Blanco Roulade, pick up our May 2016 issue, on sale now.