Here’s How to Crack the Ultimate Holiday Nut

American chestnuts were all but wiped out last century, but that thankfully won’t stop you from enjoying their winter-friendly flavor.
(Photo: Flickr)
Dec 21, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

I’m a fool for chestnuts. Here in New York, chestnut carts—more correctly, chestnut-pretzel-knish-hot-dog-sausage carts—are reason alone to brave the holiday crowds on Fifth Avenue. This year, the chestnuts are glossy, fat, and beautiful.

A favorite vendor of mine gave me the lowdown. “You need to roast them covered, over low heat,” he said. The reason for the typical slash across the rounded side? “That’s so the heat travels evenly,” he explained. “Never cut the flat side.” The texture and flavor of his new-crop chestnuts (no leftovers from last year, he assured me) are excellent—meaty and moist, with a rich, almost honeyed sweetness.

Also, they’re from Italy. I’m embarrassed to admit this, especially on the heels of last week’s column on sustainable food gifts—but my guilty seasonal treat is shipped across the Atlantic. I can’t think about the carbon miles, though, when the vendor recognizes me from years past. I’m supporting the local economy, I think, and when I hear that his son (I remember when he was a toddler!) started college this fall, I buy a few more quarter-pound sacks. They won’t go to waste.

The reason our chestnuts are imported is that the vast majority of American chestnuts—an estimated 4 billion trees—succumbed during the first half of the 20th century to Cryphonectria parasitica, or chestnut blight. In 1904, the devastating fungus was discovered on an American chestnut tree in the New York Zoological Park, an inadvertent hitchhiker on imported Asian trees that had co-evolved with the fungus, thus acquiring immunity to it.

No such luck for its American cousin. The blight, which spreads through the air, grows under the bark, where it kills the tree’s vascular system, and by 1950, almost all mature specimens were gone. One common misconception, by the way, is that the American chestnut is extinct or endangered, but because the blight does not affect the roots, there are still millions of wild sprouts throughout the tree’s native range. All but a very few die. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, the correct term is “effectively extinct,” because “very few of the small sprouts will live long enough to flower, and when trees do flower, they tend to die fairly quickly.”

This great American tragedy has all but been forgotten, except by some residents in rural communities stretching from Maine to Florida, from the North Carolina Piedmont to the Ohio River Valley. Their economies (from fence posts to livestock feed) depended on the chestnut tree, often referred to as “a perfect tree.” It grew tall (often 100 feet or more), fast, and as straight as a column, providing rot-resistant hardwood for houses, fences, and furniture—from cradle to coffin, as it were. A single mature chestnut could reliably produce 6,000 nuts every year. High in fiber, vitamin C, protein, and carbohydrates, chestnuts were a boon for both settlers and their livestock, as well as a vast web of wildlife, from pollinators to birds and bears.

This fact is remembered as well by the plant scientists and other proponents who are breeding and cultivating blight-resistant trees to repopulate the eastern woodlands. Because Asian chestnut trees are immune to the blight, researchers have been using a hybridization method known as backcross breeding since the 1970s. Although much of the work goes on at the American Chestnut Foundation’s Meadowview research farm, breeding for genetic diversity and local adaptation occurs at more than 300 breeding orchards under the auspices of the foundation’s volunteer-led state chapters. Today’s hybrid “restoration chestnut” is 15/16ths American, and in 2009, 500 seedlings were planted in national forests in three southern states. They seem to be flourishing, and time will tell if they retain their blight-resistant characteristics.

On the genetic modification front, a team of forest biotechnologists at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project have used a gene from wheat that grants blight resistance to the American chestnut. G.M. chestnut trees are controversial for all the usual reasons, and NPR published a clear summary by science writer Jill Neimark earlier this year.

Yet another tool in the tool kit is hypovirulence. “Scientists have found naturally occurring viruses in the forest that are, in effect, a blight of the chestnut blight, infecting it and weakening its destructive power,” wrote Tom Horton in American Forests magazine in 2010. “In Europe, such ‘hypovirulence’ effectively stopped the blight from destroying that continent’s chestnuts.” Researchers are trying to understand why American strains of hypovirulence don’t spread as easily in the wild as European strains do.

Because the American chestnut is such a world-class hardwood, restorationists are primarily concerned with the benefits to the timber industry. According to Horton, one of the funders of the research at SUNY is Duke Energy, “which is interested in the chestnut’s potential to reclaim coal-mining land but also in its promise for sequestering carbon dioxide. A Purdue University study shows that the growth rate, size, and longevity of chestnuts let them store more carbon, and at a faster rate, than any other hardwood.”

When it comes to advancing the culinary merits of the American chestnut, specialty growers such as Chestnut Hill Growers & Orchards, whose groves of Dunstan hybrid trees have been bearing for 50 years; Glenn Roberts of the heirloom grain cooperative Anson Mills, who has been making meal from the available Dunstan harvest; and David Shields, author of Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine, are leading the charge. Shields offered some valuable historical context in the fall issue of the American Chestnut Foundation’s newsletter.

“The American chestnut became a central component of people’s foodways for not only its wonderful flavor but for its nutritional value. It was used to produce flours, porridge, pickled chestnuts, roasted chestnuts, dressing, desserts, and more,” he wrote, and his list of chestnut recipes before 1910 included chestnut bread, chestnut skillet bread (a kind of flat griddle cake), chestnut pudding, chestnut cake, chestnut caramels, chestnut stuffing, deviled chestnuts, preserved chestnuts, chestnut soup, and chestnut custard.

Chestnut ice cream was a take on the custard recipes of this time, he explained. “Using a puréed chestnut formula, the dessert appeared on the menus of Delmonico's Restaurant in New York. Chef Charles Ranhofer, reputed to be the greatest chef in the history of the 19th century, had a particular weakness for chestnut ice cream.”

I like a good chestnut ice cream too, but this year I’m hankering for something savory. Chestnuts add a meaty sweetness to brussels sprouts, and they are also fabulous, along with pancetta and sage (a classic Italian flavor trio), tossed with tagliatelle or fettuccine in a skillet and cooked briefly with just enough Parmesan and pasta cooking water to make a sauce.

But for Christmas, my contribution to a friend’s festive dinner is a chestnut soup with sourdough sage croutons. As I type this, I’ve got the soup simmering away (after puréeing, it will keep up to three days in the fridge), and as soon as I finish typing (which will be any moment now), I’ll get the croutons working in the oven. They keep for three days as well, tucked away in an airtight container.

This soup is brothier than many renditions, but it has plenty of body from puréed chestnuts and is very flavorful despite its lightness. It makes a great first course, in other words, for a rich holiday meal.

Although I love freshly roasted chestnuts for eating out of hand, I don’t have the time, energy, or martyr complex (your hands burn or bleed or both) to roast and peel chestnuts at home for use in cooking. Instead, I go with one of the world’s great convenience foods: bottled vacuum-packed whole chestnuts that are already roasted and peeled. This time of year, you can find them at pretty much any supermarket.

Now, where’s my checkbook? The last item on today’s to-do list is to contribute to the American Chestnut Foundation. Happy holidays!