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Treasure chest

Chestnuts are a delicious and versatile winter ingredient, whether over an open fire or in a stew

    Surely there is nothing more glorious than sitting by an open fire roasting chestnuts, or enjoying a cone of piping hot chestnuts. And chestnuts have more than a food significance for Jewish people. For during the time that Anne Frank was incarcerated in her hiding place, she looked out on a chestnut tree and often mentioned it in her writing.

    On February 23, 1944, she said, “From my favourite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree on whose branches little raindrops shine…”

    Now that 150-year-old-tree is coming to the end of its life. But an ingenious idea has saved this tree from death, in that 11 saplings obtained from the tree will be planted next to buildings established for the purpose of combating prejudice.

    The chestnut was mentioned in the Bible and is wreathed in Jewish symbolism, for the edible inside part is considered holy and the shell protects the precious inside. The tree (castanea sativa) has been a staple of the Mediterranean for thousands of years and when other foods were not so easily available, both the Greeks and the Romans complained of stomach problems due to their reliance on these versatile nuts. From then on, nations used the chestnut for both savoury and sweet recipes.

    During the last two world wars, when the Italian country folk were desperate for food, they harvested the chestnuts, dried them, later grinding them down into a dark flour to make a type of bread which kept them alive during times of starvation. However the bread never rose, so it was referred to as “wooden bread”; and today the tree is often referred to as “the bread tree”.

    From a nutrition point of view chestnuts could be regarded as a super-food; as they are virtually fat-free (one to two per cent) while other nuts can be 50 per cent fat. They provide high quality protein are cholesterol free, full of fibre and contain Vitamin C. so should be used as part of a healthy diet.

    Chestnuts are also deliciously moreish and there is so much more that you can do with them aside from roasting.

    Now is the time to realise their potential. You may be nervous to try them if you have heard rumours that when the chestnuts are placed in a hot oven or fire, they can explode.

    But by simply cutting a large X shape with a sharp knife on the flat surface, then placing them in a roasting tray in a very hot oven Gas mark 8, 230C or fire, for 35 – 40 minutes, shaking them occasionally, you will have perfect roasted chestnuts.

    Beware though, you will have to peel them while they are still a little hot otherwise the shell will tighten, although popping them back into a hot oven should release the shells.

    You could save yourself the trouble and buy them tinned, vacuum packed or ready to go in jars and process them with your favourite vegetable soup recipe. Or add to mashed potato or cooked rice.

    Or try my Mushrooms and Chestnuts in Red Wine Sauce with Fluffy Mustard Mash. It should satisfy even confirmed carnivores.

    Mushrooms and chestnuts in red wine

    Serves 4

    Ingredients
    For the stew
    ● 2 large onions peeled and chopped
    ● 1 tablespoon olive oil,
    ● 6 punnets of mushrooms
    ● 1 jar of organic chestnuts,
    ● Few sprigs of thyme,
    ● 124ml dry red wine
    ● 1 heaped tablespoon cornflour plus a little vegetable stock
    ● Freshly milled salt and pepper

    For the mash
    ● One large potato per person
    ● Milk
    ● butter
    ● grain mustard

    Method
    ● Sweat onions in a large covered pan with olive oil until soft and golden.
    ● Add mushrooms and keep cooking until softened.
    ● Add chestnuts, red wine and thyme sprigs.
    ● Mix cornflour with a dash of stock or water, add the slaked mixture to the wine/ mushroom/chestnut mixture stirring well. Simmer for 10 minutes and serve.
    ● To make the mash, allow one large potato per person – cook in skin until done. Peel hot. Push though a potato ricer – or use a mooli.
    ● Add a knob of butter, a dash of milk and a scant dessertspoon of grain mustard.
    ● Season. Beat until fluffy.

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