Harte Appetite: Whether roasted over an open fire or not, chestnuts are a delicious holiday treat

Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Though a microwave will do the job, roasting chestnuts over an open fire is a far more romantic option this time of year. (TOM HARTE)

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" goes the opening lyric to one of the most popular Christmas songs ever written. But the truth is, it's much easier to roast chestnuts in the microwave, though it's far less romantic, as the song's composer, Mel Torme, perhaps realized. Besides, it's not that easy to come up with words that rhyme with microwave.

However you do it, now is a wonderful time of year for roasting chestnuts. (Just be sure you slit their shells beforehand because they have a tendency to explode otherwise.) December is the leading month for the sale of fresh chestnuts as street vendors in major cities tempt passers-by with the aroma of them roasting over hot coals. They have become a holiday tradition.

Italians usher in Christmas by dunking hot roasted chestnuts in new wine. On the other side of the world in Japan, where eating chestnuts symbolizes success, the nuts feature in New Year's celebrations. Almost defying culinary classification, they are a nut that can also be treated as a fruit or a vegetable, and, thus, can be a luxurious component in almost any course of a holiday meal -- from soup to dessert.

But though chestnuts may seem a luxury these days, they are of humble origin. Among the first foods ever eaten by humans, they go back to prehistoric times, and until European royalty got hold of them (candied chestnuts, for example, were a favorite of Louis XIV) they were considered a food of the poor. Even today in parts of Asia and Africa they are used simply as a substitute for potatoes. After all, they contain twice as much starch and from a nutritional standpoint are more akin to brown rice than anything else.

As food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat observes, since the beginning of civilization the "daily bread" of the majority of people was actually a sort of mush or porridge and among the poor it was never made of wheat but, rather, just about anything that could be ground and was cheap and filling. Chestnuts, in particular, filled the bill.

Modeled after the highest peak in the Alps, Mont Blanc is perhaps the ultimate chestnut dessert. (TOM HARTE)

These days chestnuts are available in jars and cans or in the produce section of the grocery store, though, sadly, these are often rejects imported from Europe. The best are still grown locally on farms in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Tom Wahl of the Prairie Grove Nut Growers Co-op is a good source. He'll likely tell you that over the fire or in the microwave, chestnuts really are worth singing about.

Mont Blanc

This classic recipe, adapted from Bon Appetit, is the ultimate chestnut preparation. The French and Italians argue over who invented it just as they argue over the ownership of the namesake Alpine mountain it supposedly resembles.

4 egg whites

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

25 tablespoons sugar, divided

2 teaspoons vanilla, divided

3 pounds fresh chestnuts

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

Beat egg whites and salt until foamy. Add cream of tartar, beating until soft peaks form. Add 2 tablespoons sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Fold in 13 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Spread meringue onto bottom of a greased springform pan and bake at 250 degrees for one hour until firm to the touch. Cut chestnuts in half, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Drain and peel off shell and husk. Simmer shelled chestnuts, covered with water, for 30 minutes or until tender. Drain and puree in food processor. Combine water and remaining 10 tablespoons sugar and boil briefly to make a thin syrup. Cool and beat enough syrup into chestnut puree to make it of piping consistency. Beat cream until stiff, adding powdered sugar and remaining teaspoon vanilla. Pipe chestnut puree around edge of meringue and fill center with whipped cream, piling it high. If desired, sprinkle grated chocolate over top.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at news@semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699.

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