Chestnuts are symbolic, says Six Burner chef Philip Denny: "They represent people's ideas of wintertime because of the song line, ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.' " They also have a compelling story. Once common in America's forests, nearly all native chestnut trees were wiped out by an Asian fungus about 100 years ago. As a result, the majority of chestnuts consumed in the United States are imported, though efforts are under way to re-establish the majestic tree.
A versatile nut
Denny says that the flavor of chestnuts lends itself well to a variety of items, from savory soups and sauces to desserts. "It has a meaty, rich flavor that goes well with steak, fowl and mushrooms, especially porcini and truffles," he says, adding that chestnuts are also excellent on their own, roasted gently in the oven and served with olive oil and salt.
Unlike most nuts, chestnuts contain very little fat. So you get the protein and fiber found in other nuts, as well as iron, calcium and vitamins A and C, without as many calories.
Where to find them
Though some grocery stores phase out chestnuts after the holidays, Ellwood Thompson's Local Market and Whole Foods Market expect to carry fresh chestnuts in January. Availability will depend on the growing season, though. Canned or roasted chestnuts can be ordered online from companies such as D'Artagnan or Amazon.
Braised Chestnuts and Duck Confit with Persimmon Cardamom Sauce
Contributed by Chef Philip Denny of Six Burner Restaurant
- 20 chestnuts, shelled or in their shells
Duck confit (2 duck legs, salt-cured and poached gently on low heat in duck fat). Note: Duck confit can be purchased already prepared at the Belmont Butchery and other specialty stores.
- 2 ripe, astringent hachiya persimmons
- 1 teaspoon of ground cardamom
- 1/4 cup, plus 1 teaspoon, of olive oil
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- 2 cups of chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon of sugar
- Fleur de sel (sea salt) and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If the chestnuts are in the shell, use a paring knife to cut an X into the round side while the flat side is on a table (use caution). Spread the chestnuts evenly on a sheet pan and roast them for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven and peel them while they're still hot. Boil the shelled nuts for 10 minutes in enough lightly salted water to cover them. (If you buy cooked chestnuts, skip the roasting and boiling steps.) Remove the chestnuts from the water and place in a new pan with the chicken stock, butter and sugar. Heat them on medium-low for three to four minutes to reduce the liquid to a glaze. Crisp the duck legs in a pan with 1 teaspoon of olive oil, on medium heat, then pick the meat off the bones, keeping it relatively intact. Add the duck meat to the pan of glazed chestnuts. Remove the skin and seeds from the persimmons and purée the flesh with ground cardamom and 1/4 cup of olive oil to make a smooth sauce that's served at room temperature. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Dish out the persimmon sauce on a plate and top with the chestnuts and duck confit. Serves four.