Much as we associate chestnuts with European
culture, there is probably not a cuisine which has embraced them as
wholeheartedly as that of Japan. Baked, grilled or cooked in rice as
well as a central ingredient in many sweets, the humble chestnut has
been paid far greater homage there than the simple snack bought from
street vendors to warm mitten hands in northern winter months.
As delicious as they can be, chestnuts are
the most deceptive of all ingredients. A good chestnut should be a
creamy off-white inside and without signs of mould or mildew on the
skin. Some varieties seem to defy skinning. It is easy enough to remove
the outer shell - it is removing the inside, downy membrane which can
drive you to the point of distraction, especially if you are trying to
keep the chestnuts whole. Often it is necessary to boil for an extra 10
minutes, particularly if the skin is still brittle or if the chestnut
'meat' does not yield to gentle pressure. As well as cooking the
chestnut, it will help loosen stubborn skins - there are few things
worse than a fragment under a fingernail.
Anyone who has ever roasted or grilled
chestnuts without first slitting the shells will have learned the hard
way that they explode without a 'release valve', and are extremely messy
to clean up. If boiling, it's not strictly necessary to slit the skins
(they won't explode), but a shallow horizontal slit on the curved
surface across the widest part will facilitate peeling. Boil for 20-30
minutes. Don't worry if the water turns deep brown as this is normal.
Peeling off the inner skins seems easier
while they are still warm, so get to it as soon as they are cool enough
to handle and, with a small, sharp knife to help you, praise every last
vestige of skin out of cracks and crevices. It only needs the tiniest
bit of this inner skin to pucker the mouth worst than the un-ripest
persimmon. If the chestnuts are very difficult to skin, there is a
method to remove the pulp (only suitable for recipes that require
chestnut puree) by taking a slice off the flat end, enough to get past
the inner skin, and squeezing out the pulp. It is a little wasteful but
much quicker. The chestnuts will need to be quite soft for this method
to work - usually 25-30 minutes will soften even large chestnuts. The
pulp resembles the texture of boiled potatoes, soft and floury.
Unsweetened puree is available in cans, but it doesn't taste very 'chestnutty'.
If you're making them into a sweet puree,
save yourself the aggravation and buy the sweetened puree that comes in
small cans. It's not cheap, but will work out cheaper in hours and
frustration, unless you are a very patient person with few demands on
Dried Chestnuts : When whole
chestnuts are called for, don't overlook the prospect of dried
chestnuts, which can be reconstituted by soaking in boiling water for 1
hour, draining and replacing with freshly boiled water half way through.
Use only these in savory dishes, however, as the flavor of dried
chestnuts is not as suitable for sweets.
In Chinese cooking, dried chestnuts are
mostly used. It does save time and trouble getting the shell and skin
off, but requires time and effort to soak and soften. Chestnuts make a
good addition to braised dishes featuring rich meats such as duck and
pork, as their mealy texture balances the fat.
If time permits, soak dried chestnuts
overnight. If you don't have the time, soak chestnuts in boiling water
with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda for 1 hour. Rinse them well and
cover again with boiling water and leave until water is cool. They may
then be added to a dish which is going to be simmered for a minimum of 1
hour, by which time they should be tender. if the dish does not require
long cooking, cook the chestnuts first until tender before adding.