It’s time to make the most of chestnuts as they hit peak season, says Jenny Hobson McGrigor. They’ve been grown Down Under for a century so you’ve got no excuse!
Forget new kids on the block: it’s said that Alexander the Great and the Romans used to plant chestnuts along the way to their various battles – early conservationists perhaps?
Australia arrived a little later to the party; it’s only been a little over 100 years since the chestnut was brought here, ‘delivered’ by the Chinese during the gold rush in the 1850s. Add to these the other trees brought from Europe more than 120 years ago and there is quite a bounty – and they still produce nuts today.
Possibly it is the European heritage that is most in line with the image of chestnuts during winter, roasted by a street vendor as a delicious, warming snack. If street vendors are thin on the ground and you are planning to cook your own, make sure you cut the outer shell – either a slit or a cross on the flat end – to avoid the nut exploding during cooking.
That said, when cooking them on an open fire it’s a good thing to leave one of them with the shell on as the explosion will not only be a highly anticipated entertainment (don’t tell your guests), but it will let you know when the other nuts are ready. Not recommended for indoors.
The nut has three layers starting with an outer prickly green layer, which gives the nut the look of a little green pom-pom. The next level is the tough, shiny brown shell and, finally the thin, creamy coloured inner skin. All of these layers are removed before you eat them.
No matter how you cook them, wrap the chestnuts in a tea towel when they are done and rub them to remove that outer shell and inner skin. It’s important to do this when they are warm – it is virtually impossible to remove the shell when they cool down.
Chestnuts have a distinctive texture most often likened to a baked potato; it’s not the crunchy nut experience you might expect, but rather a more starchy one. This is due to the low oil but high water content which is quite the opposite to most nuts. The flavour is delicate, sweet, nutty and rich.
They can be baked, roasted, grilled, pureed or cooked on the BBQ, sweet or savoury but always delicious. As sweet, they can be used as a flour alternative in desserts if you process them to a fine texture. Anything chestnut-chocolate is a winner, and marron glaces are highly recommended – chestnuts cooked in sugar syrup to saturate the nut with sugar.
For a savoury choice, use them chopped in stuffings or whole in stews and casseroles. Chestnut flour is available for baking, as is chestnut milk.
To locate the best, choose raw chestnuts, with shiny, tight, rich dark brown skin. They should feel firm to touch and heavy for their size. They dry out really quickly so be sure to store them in a sealed container, refrigerated.
The local season is mid-March through to the end of July – perfect roasting weather as the seasons begin to turn. As you all rush out to celebrate these beauties, let’s position chestnuts as a cosy snack rather than a battle preparation and the world will be a happier place.
Jenny Hobson McGrigor is from Murdoch Produce. Read more about them at www.murdochproduce.com.au.