Yes, it is time consuming to shell fresh chestnuts. There, I said it. But if it’s not difficult – provided you blanch the chestnuts and peel them while still warm.
Besides chestnuts are a treat, made all the rarer because the trees take a long time to grow and bear fruit; the nuts must be harvested almost daily to avoid chestnut-eating worms. In fact, best if you can put a cloth on the ground, shake branches with a long pole and move away fast to avoid the rain of thorny shells. Thick gloves and stout boots are helpful too.
As well, true American chestnuts are a rarity. Once a mighty tree that provided rot-resistant timber & fence wood; fire wood through coppicing; tannins to tan leather; abundant flowering for honey bees; fresh nuts for humans, pigs, and wild life; and dry nuts and flour for winter food, chestnut trees may have constituted as much as 25% of the Eastern North American forest. Alas an imported blight practically wiped out them in the 20th century. Some remain west of the Rockies and a few specimens in rare pockets in the East. They generally don’t live long, and the most promising trees (in terms of disease resistance) have been crossed and back-crossed with the immune Chinese chestnuts through the efforts of organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation and the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation.
So local chestnuts, whether cultivated or foraged are likely to be the Chinese or even Japanese chestnuts, or hybrids. Chikapin chestnuts (another native that grows on a small tree) are really tiny – so ignored by people. The large chestnuts sold in the store are imported from Europe.
By the way, when buying or collecting chestnuts, carefully inspect them for tiny holes. They are the sign that the nuts are inhabited. Discard them. I collect fresh chestnut, and as I soon as I get home, I dump them in water and discard the ones that float, on the theory that the flesh has been eaten or has started to rot.
Chestnuts are versatile, used with equal success in desserts and in savory dishes, as the lovely recipe below.
Chestnut and Onion Braisée
1 pound fresh parboiled and peeled chestnuts, from about 1 .3 pounds chestnuts in the shell (see note below)
1 pound small onions such as cippolini, pearl, or shallots, peeled and left whole
4 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
½ cup chicken demi-glace, homemade or purchased
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dry whole leaves)
Melt butter in a skillet large enough to hold both the onions and chestnuts in a single layer. Add the onions and cook for about 10 minutes on medium high, shaking often, until the onions are well coated in butter and have brown spots.
Add chestnuts, lower heat, cover, and simmer 45 minutes. Shake the pan occasionally to coat the veggies with their cooking juice.
Add the demi-glace (if using dry thyme add it now). Cook 15 minutes, covered. (The dish can be prepared up to this point and refrigerated for up to 3 days)
Remove lid, increase the heat, add fresh thyme, and shake the pan often until liquids have reduced to a syrupy consistency and the vegetables are glistening – about 5 to 10 minutes.
NOTE: How to parboil & peel fresh chestnuts. With a paring knife, cut an X in the pointed end of each chestnut, cutting through the inner and outer skins. Blanch chestnuts for 5 minutes in boiling water. Turn heat off. With a slotted spoon, remove only a few chestnuts at a time from the hot water. With a paring knife, remove the outer and inner skins: they come off fairly easily when the chestnuts are still hot. But it is hard to do on cool chestnuts. If the water cools too much, bring it back to boil.
Blanched chestnuts can be frozen to be used later. May as well prep a bunch at once!
The recipe was initially published in the column I wrote in the Winter 2013 issue of Foodshed Magazine.
Other chestnuts post: Chestnut Memories