We’ve all heard the expression living on a diet of bread and water. Well, the French equivalent of that is living on a diet of water and chestnuts. Maybe that’s where the name for water chestnuts came from; maybe not.
Chestnuts are native to North America and Europe and were a dietary staple of the Native American Indians. They used them for culinary purposes as well as medicinally. They added them to soup or ground them down into flour to make bread. The Iroquois roasted them and made a drink similar to coffee.
In Southern Italy they are cooked much like a polenta and served with cheese. The French make a glazed, candied chestnut called marron glacé that involves a twenty-step process from harvest to the finished product. Even at close to $50 per half-pound, they are still a favorite around the holidays.
Chestnuts differ from most nuts in that they contain little fat and protein, but are a great source of carbohydrates, zinc, potassium, iron, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus and calcium. They are also the only nut that has vitamin C.
This is the season when we reminisce about roasting chestnuts over an open fire, but I don’t recall ever having done that. I don’t know anyone who has, but it sounds nice.
Roasted chestnuts are still a popular holiday tradition and are sold on the streets of many European towns in the winter as a street snack. Fresh chestnuts are available September through February in many supermarkets, and some markets carry canned chestnuts year round.
American chestnut producers only supply about one percent of the world’s chestnut crop and most of the chestnuts we see in stores are imported from Italy with Sicilian being the most sought after.
Chestnuts are versatile and can be used in numerous ways, pureed into soup, mixed with mashed potatoes, mixed in with stuffing, but they are especially tasty when roasted with Brussels sprouts.
Honestly, they are.