There are many products that we can associate with autumn, but few awaken as much nostalgia as chestnuts. They are almost an icon of this bucolic season, when the forests are stained with colors and the ground is filled with leaves, mushrooms and these unmistakable fruits that have been so important for centuries in the economy and culture of many regions of our country. The aroma of roasted chestnuts has something magical and comforting, but you can get much more out of it in the kitchen.
The mobile stalls of chestnut trees -and chestnut trees- spread through the capitals of the whole country, and half of Europe, throughout the 19th century, bringing a bit of their bucolic charm even to those who have not set foot in the forest in all his life. It is true that its season begins with the autumn days in full splendor, when the cold transforms the landscape, but its consumption will last until the end of winter.
Few remedies cope with low temperatures as well as a freshly roasted chestnut cone, warming the hands but also body and soul, with its comforting aroma and delicious flavor, full in addition to nutritional virtues. Very associated with that rural and humble life, with traditions that endure, chestnuts can also be an ingredient in haute cuisine.
What is chestnut?
The chestnut is the chestnut fruit, deciduous tree widely spread today throughout much of the planet, especially in the northern hemisphere. It should not be confused with the so-called horse chestnut or water chestnut, tree and plant that are not related to the one in question today, but that produce similar-looking fruits.
Botanically we speak of Castanea, a genus of plants in the Fagaceae family, which includes several hundred trees and shrubs. There are many types of chestnut trees in the world with more or less different characteristics, although we commonly refer to the European or Castanea sativa, Mill. In addition, although it is a detail that usually escapes the consumer, chestnuts are marketed under a multitude of varieties such as longal, as a result of grafts and hybridizations looking for a certain shape, size or skin.
The tree can reach a large size up to 30 meters high, with straight and thick trunks of generally smooth bark. The elongated leaves show a very sharp serrated profile, they turn yellow and ocher when the autumn cold arrives, falling little by little to the ground, just like the fruits.
Chestnut it is not so much the fruit itself as rather the seed. The fruits of the chestnut tree are easily recognized as a kind of globe or dome covered with slightly hairy spines. Inside you can find two or three achenes, which are chestnuts. Its size can vary between two and four centimeters, domed in shape, with a convex or plano-convex base, and a hard shell called the endocarp, dark brown in color when the chestnut is ripe.
The seed, the edible fruit, is like this doubly protected, and also has a kind of skin -episperm- of a cinnamon tone, often with fuzz, firmly adhered to the chestnut itself, penetrating its irregular surface, full of furrows or wrinkles.
Origin and current cultivation
The European chestnut is a tree native to southern Europe and Asia Minor, widely spread throughout Central European countries for its cultivation. It needs mild climates, good humidity and stable temperatures, being very sensitive to summer droughts and also to frost.
In our country it is widespread, especially in the north. Galicia dominates its cultivation and yield, with a total production of 172,034 tons of chestnuts in 2019. The production, already a long way off, also stands out, Castilla y León, with 7,285 tons, followed by Andalusia and Extremadura. Less focused on production, it is a tree that appears frequently throughout the Cantabrian coast, Catalonia and inland regions.
The Galician chestnut enjoys the protection of the recognition of Protected Geographical Indication under the PGI Castaña de Galicia seal, while the Bierzo chestnut exhibits the quality recognition of Guarantee Mark.
Today the chestnut is no longer as basic a survival product as it was for centuries in many mountainous and forested regions, but it continues to have a great tradition and cultural and social importance. The fall months are full of local events and festivities that start with the first harvests, such as the Galician magosto, Asturian amagüestu or Catalan chestnut, being associated with other celebrations such as Todos los Santos.
Nutritional properties and benefits
Although they are a dry fruit, chestnuts stand out for a much lower calorie content which is usually common in these foods, being less fat. They only provide about 179 kcal per 100 g of edible raw portion, rising a little when roasting, since the percentage of water they contain is reduced.
They are a great quality carbohydrate source, satiating and rich in fiber, with low sugar content, thus providing a good source of healthy energy. They are also rich in minerals such as potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and calcium, and provide a small amount of vitamins of group B and C. They are also a source of phenolic compounds with antioxidant properties in the body.
These characteristics make the chestnut a perfect food to enrich the diet with essential nutrients, compatible with weight loss or maintenance diets, always within a coherent and balanced consumption. Due to their versatility in the kitchen, they allow many preparations that adapt to any need, although they may stand out particularly as a snack or snack between meals, easy to take anywhere once peeled.
Its benefits are multiplied if we are lucky enough to be able Go outdoors to collect and consume them in the middle of nature, although the current situation is not the most suitable for celebrating chestnut trees outside the home.
We always talk about benefits depending on how they are cooked or accompanied; the most recommended options, in nutritional terms, are always cooked, roasted, or toasted. The preserves in syrup, the marron glacé or any sweet will multiply the calories, the sugar or the fats, and they should be consumed with much more moderation.
How to choose and keep them
First of all, you have to be patient so that seasonal chestnuts arrive at our usual stores, and check origin of the fruit as well as the date of harvest. If you can, buy them in bulk, choosing them carefully yourself.
Make sure they are chestnuts good size and weighing when picked up by hand, they show a smooth and shiny skin, of a homogeneous color without stains or breaks, with a firm texture that does not have external damages. Avoid chestnuts with holesTiny as they are, because that means there will probably be visitors inside. If they smell musty, throw them out.
When cooking them, it is preferable to choose chestnuts from a caliber or similar size, so that they are all to the point equally. The more bulky ones will be easier to peel, while the very flat ones will make it more difficult.
To keep them at home, discard any plastic wrap and open the nets or nets as well. They will hold up better spread out on a cloth or basket, in a cool, airy place, away from heat sources and without direct sunlight. In any case, it is advisable to consume them in a few days to prevent mold or insects from coming out.
They can also be freeze raw, with a cut in the shell, or already cooked and peeled. In the case of dried chestnuts, also called pilongas, they can last much longer in the fridge, in an open container, for several weeks.
Cooking with chestnuts: this is how they are prepared
In order to roast chestnuts at home The ideal is to use the typical chestnut frying pan, with holes, which can be used on firewood, embers or, if they are adapted, the stovetop fire. They can also be made in the oven or in the microwave, but in all cases you have to practice a pre-cut to prevent them from exploding, and to facilitate subsequent peeling.
The cut can be in a cross or a simple line through the outermost bark and the inner skin, with a well-sharpened or serrated knife. They will be ready in the oven in about 20 minutes, preheated to 200ºC, depending on the size and power of the appliance. In order to cook them in the microwave, you have to get the point depending on the device, but it is usually enough with 2 and a half minutes at 800W. Do not lose sight of them because they can explode or generate a lot of steam if the power is excessive.
To cook with them and other preparations, another option is cook them in boiling water, about 10-20 minutes, according to the size and the point in which we want them. Always without forgetting the previous cut, and controlling the interior texture. Once semi-cooked and peeled, we can finish cooking in milk, syrup or sugar, or use them for savory dishes such as fillings and garnishes for meats, rice, vegetable creams, vegetable stews, soups or stir-fries.
In the world we can incorporate them already cooked or roasted as if they were any other dried fruit, whole or chopped, to sponge cake, cookies, muffins or cakes. They can be crushed to almost turn into flour, or to make sweet creams, for example with chocolate, or spoon desserts such as custard, pannacotta or custard. Sweet chestnut cream is a delicious preserve, as well as chestnuts in syrup.
If we are left with the desire for chestnuts out of season, in the market we can find them cooked canned in nature, frozen, dried or in sweet preparations of all kinds, including jams and different desserts. Besides, the chestnut flour It is a delicacy full of aromas to experiment with our bakery and pastry recipes, especially when combined with chocolate and nuts.
Heat the butter in a saucepan and poach the vegetables with a pinch of salt, letting them be done without haste. When they are transparent, add the chestnuts …