Burdock & Rose

wildly-crafted plant tales from herbalist, forager & author lisa rose

Tag: chestnuts

Wild Flavors of Thanksgiving: Chestnuts

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In Michigan and across much of the Midwest it’s a SNOW DAY! The snow out my window already blankets the ground with drifts in some areas over 2 feet deep!

This makes me glad for the season’s harvests that already are packed away in my pantry for hearty winter meals — the acorn flour, the fruit jams, the herbal simple syrups and the dried herbs for cooking and for tea. As I plan my holiday meals, I turn to the rich flavors of my autumn harvest to add wild flavors to my table.

One of my favorite flavors from the fall harvest for a forager’s Thanksgiving’s feast is the chestnut. The chestnut (Castanea spp.) is a delicious and nutritious edible, whose spiny shell can be found on the ground when the nuts ripen in late September.  Chestnut trees can be found growing along the edges of the mixed hardwood forests, in areas with well-drained soil and sunshine. Chestnuts are also a specialty crop for tree farmers. Check your local food guide for a chestnut grower who may have u-pick or who sells chestnuts at the farmers markets if you’d like to try this delicious fall wild edible.

With a neutral, buttery flavor, the chestnut is very versatile in cooking.  It can be dried and made into chestnut flour, cooked and pureed into a creamy soup. For me, I can’t do Thanksgiving, Chanukkah or Christmas without preparing simple, but classic roasted chestnuts. These delicious morsels can be savored steaming, right out of the pan or integrated into Thanksgiving’s stuffing. 

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Roasted chestnuts are a quintessential holiday dish (cue Nat King Cole) and is an easy appetizer that even the kids will enjoy. I like to roast the chestnuts in a heavy iron skillet on the stovetop (first score a slit with a sharp knife in the bottom of the shell to allow the moisture to escape). Once roasted, they can be easily peeled and enjoyed warm from the shell. 

With an abundance of gratitude, other wild foods that will find their place on my holiday table — nettles, serviceberries, acorns, autumn olive, wild apples, linden cocktail syrups and the needles of conifers to flavor my roasted meats. What foraged flavors will be on your table this season?

“Chestnuts Roasting on a Open Fire”

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… A holiday mantra that hits the airwaves at Thanksgiving and then repeats on loop through the December holiday madness. We hum the tune, but have you ever added chestnuts to your table during the holiday?

The chestnut is a pretty amazing food, filled with protein, minerals and vitamins and energy in fact, if ever needed to rely on a nut (Hunger Games, anyone?).  And it’s pretty versatile too. Chestnuts can be roasted, boiled into soups and ground into flours.

For an easy holiday appetizer that kids will enjoy, I suggest roasting chestnuts stovetop for snacking while that Christmas turkey or ham is in the oven.  They can be peeled and enjoyed warm from the shell. They have a very neutral, almost buttery flavor making them an easy food for children to appreciate.

We first introduced our own children to the chestnut several years ago on a fall foraging jaunt. One Sunday afternoon, the husband and I loaded the kids into the car for a Sunday drive west from Grand Rapids to Winkel Chestnut Farms to learn more about the chestnut. The Winkel Farm grows about 20 acres of chestnuts and have been doing it for over 20 years.  While we had missed their regular UPick season; the owners, Leslie and Dick, were super cool to let us bring the family out to forage for fallen nuts on the ground.

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My children listened to the farmers tell us the story of the American Chestnut — how it was once prolific throughout the eastern United States until the Chinese Chestnut tree was introduced in the late 1880s, when a virus it carried affected greatly the American Chestnut and nearly wiped out its population completely.

After about an hour of searching through the grass, we’d gathered several quarts of chestnuts. The children took it upon themselves to turn the ground foraging into a competition.  We wished we’d brought leather gloves — not realizing how spiky the spines of the chestnut were!

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We giggled and laughed in the sunshine, trying not to puncture our fingers with their spines.  Farmer Leslie fired up the roaster and showed the children how the nuts should be scored on the bottom before roasting. The kids loved the taste of the warm nuts and were excited about adding chestnuts to our Thanksgiving menu. And while my children would have tried the warm nuts straight out of the cast iron pan during the holiday, making that venture out to the chestnut farm gave us a bit of family time together outdoors and taught the kids a little about the food’s history and ecology.

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So now, each fall my kids see chestnuts at the farmers market or hear “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” they will know more about the chestnut than it being just a healthy food. They will have memories of our family heading out and foraging for them underneath the chestnut trees.

And to me that’s what creating a culture of food around the table is all about — creating lasting memories and new holiday traditions with loved ones.

***To find a chestnut farm or farmers market near you, check out LocalHarvest.org. And for ways to prepare chestnuts, check out the many ways you can prepare chestnuts on FoodIly.com.

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