Tuesday, 29 October 2013
chestnuts: a guide to foraging & roasting
Friends, I suspect we can all agree that the only thing better in the world than food, is free food. For some reason, a meal that leaves your bank balance happily unscathed is infinitely more delightful than the other kind, and when it's 100% natural & organic as well, what could be better? Yes, it's that time of year again. It's chestnut time.
I haven't been chestnut picking in years, but I have distinct memories of wandering around in the woods wrapped in wellies & waterproofs every October half term - inevitably & invariably putting far more chestnuts into my mouth than I ever did into my pockets. I've not changed. Obviously in my grumpy teenage years you could not have paid me to trek out into the wet and windy woods searching for food that you can easily buy in a shop, but now that I'm far gone in age & decrepitude, I can't think of anything better! But another reason why I've not been in so long is because, frankly, we haven't had a very good crop of chestnuts in years. Endless dismal summers combined with icey cold autumns haven't provided the ideal conditions, but the beautiful summer we were lucky enough to experience in the UK this year, alongside this gorgeous dry autumn we're having, has made for the most plentiful chestnut picking conditions I've seen in a while. If you live in the UK & have never been chestnut picking before, now is the time to go; the forest floors are literally covered in this beautifully sweet & totally free bounty. I've provided a beginners guide to foraging for these bad boys below, and it really couldn't be simpler.
Chestnuts are much lower in fat than most other nuts including almonds & walnuts, and are completely free of cholesterol and gluten. They also contain plenty of Vitamin C & are the only nut which can make such a claim, so they're fantastically good for you. They can be eaten raw & have a lovely sweet, crunchy taste, but there's nothing like the soft, sweet flavour (and smell) of roasted chestnuts on a rainy October night to make you feel like one properly cosy little Hobbit. And free, you guys! They're free!
When foraging for chestnuts, it's important to be prepared. You'll most likely be travelling off the beaten path to find them, so a pair of good, waterproof shoes is a must. Try and make sure they've got some kind of decent heel for stamping into the chestnut burrs. Wellies are perfect. Also, when it comes to handling the burrs it's a very good idea to be wearing gloves as they are very sharp & prickly - though this does make it more difficult to then peel & eat the chestnuts on the go, so I obviously never bother. Other than that, no special equipment is required - just your eyes & your hands!
This is what a chestnut tree looks like, and they're very common in most wooded areas in this country. At this time of year their leaves will be turning the beautiful shades of orange, gold & red that make autumn just the absolute best season, and the chestnuts grow inside of bright green prickly shells (or "burrs") which get eventually dropped to the floor by the elements. You always pick the chestnuts out of these burrs once they've fallen to the floor, so the phrase "chestnut picking" is actually a little misleading. No tree climbing here, don't worry! If you live in the south of England I'd strongly recommend you get out chestnut foraging ASAP, since all the strong winds we've had lately have sent thousands of chestnuts flying off the branches and onto the floor, begging to be found.
Now, squirrels love chestnuts, so you'll probably find that the majority of those prickly green burrs will already have been opened by the time you get there. This is fine - the squirrels will generally leave some chestnuts so it's worth checking the open ones and, every now and then, you'll find a semi-open burr with untouched chestnuts ready and waiting to picked, as in the picture above. This is the golden ticket of chestnut picking, really. That said, kicking open the burrs is half the fun! All you really have to do is give the burr a firm stamp with the heel of your shoe & it should split open pretty easily, so you can bend down and pick the chestnuts out by hand.
Either from the squirrels or from being buffetted down from the trees by the wind, you'll notice that the forest floors at the moment are positively littered with chestnuts which have already come out of their burrs. This is absolutely fine, and makes no difference to the flavour at all. And obviously you'll wash the chestnuts before eating, so I wouldn't worry about a little dirt. It's probably worth saying that this isn't the best activity if you're a fussy neat-freak, because foraging is an actively inherently grubby & you'll no doubt encounter more than a few creepy crawlies among the leaves. But this is nature, I'm afraid, and it's rewards are worth the toil.
When foraging for chestnuts, the bigger the better - and also, the whiter the better. Don't discard the regular dark brown chestnuts, because they're all the same flavour wise, but those that have a little more whiteness around the base are always much easier to peel - particularly if you're eating them raw. Those pictured in my hand in the above picture are absolutely ideal, so keep your eyes peeled!
There are a couple of chestnut roasting methods out there, and several involve blanching the chestnuts or wrapping them up in a towel to steam. This will make peeling the chestnuts significantly easier, but for me, fiddling around with the little shells is all part of the fun of the thing - and as you all know, it's all about simplicity for me.
To roast your chestnuts, preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Then, wash the chestnuts thoroughly using a sieve or colander, making sure that they're totally rid of dirt. Next, empty them out onto a clean, dry tea towel & rub them until thoroughly dry.
Using a small, sharp, serrated knife - like the kind of thing you'd use to cut tomatoes - cut a cross shape into each chestnut. This is a timely procedure but it makes the chestnuts far easier to peel, and don't they look so pretty?
Roast the chestnuts for about half an hour, or until the tops are all beautifully cracked and the insides are soft and crumbly. They're best enjoyed warm, but can of course be eaten cold - though I would probably warm against eating too many, as it might cause a little bit of an upset stomach!
The only vaguely annoying thing about chestnuts is that they don't actually keep as well as other nuts, & if allowed to dry out completely will become impossible to chew, whilst keeping them too wet or too warm will inevitably lead to mould. So, to store your chestnuts for at least a few weeks, keep them in the vegetable section of your fridge to ensure that their chewy, sweet flavour remains intact.
Chestnuts have a huge variety of uses, and can be used in all kinds of foods from savoury meals to sweet desserts - though I'm a simpleton at heart, & I like them best roasted, or raw with a sprinkling of salt. That said, I've got my eye on one or two chesnut recipes at the moment - and I've certainly got plenty in my fridge to use up - so keep your eyes peeled for chestnut recipes over the next few weeks.
Have you ever cooked with chestnuts? If you've any great chestnutty recipes, please do leave them in the comments below - I'd love to know!