Raw or cooked, choose chestnuts
Chestnuts are one of the foods that can make a person smile in chilly months, by picking up a few hot sugar-roasted chestnuts before dinner as a snack, or adding chopped chestnuts in hot congee in the morning.
The chestnut season starts in the fall and leads into winter. They are an ideal ingredient that brings warm joy to dishes, sweet and savory, especially in the holiday season. They are a versatile, delicious, gluten-free and highly nutritious food loaded with health benefits and calories — yes, if you are adding chestnuts into the meal, it can substitute some portions of the staple.
There are numerous ways to cook and eat chestnuts in Chinese cuisine. They can be a sweet starter, in hot main courses or in desserts. Some people like to eat chestnuts raw, which are crunchy with a refreshing sweet flavor like a fruit, but raw chestnuts contain more tannic acid.
Chestnuts come in a variety of shapes, sizes, flavors and textures. The large, rounder chestnuts are great in stews and braised dishes, while the cone-shaped, smaller chestnuts are perfect for roasting. There are also varieties with thinner shells that when fully roasted can be cracked and easily peeled by hand.
Qianxi County in Hebei Province is well-known for its chestnuts. Planting chestnuts there dates back over 2,000 years, and the county is known as the home of Chinese chestnuts, with nearly a third of the chestnuts exported from China produced in Qianxi.
Qianxi chestnuts have a smaller bottom and even shape, glossy reddish brown color and thin peel.
Chestnuts are delicious but cooking them can be difficult and even hazardous. The hard shell of the chestnuts is not easy to remove when they are still raw.
There are a couple of tricks to shell the chestnuts more easily. Use scissors to cut a long line on the pointy end of the chestnuts, then they can be heated up in a microwave to be ready when you can hear the sound of cracking. This takes about 10 to 20 seconds depending on the microwave and quantity of the chestnuts. After that, peeling becomes easier.
Without a microwave, boil the chestnuts in water with a pinch of salt for one minute and they can be peeled with a relative degree of ease.
The peeled chestnuts can be stored in the freezer, and there’s no need to thaw them for cooking. Fresh chestnuts with their shells become dull and bad quite quickly even in the fridge.
Chestnuts have a harder texture compared with similar starchy vegetables like potatoes and taro and require a longer cooking time. When braising chestnuts with meat, they usually go into the pot at the same time as the large pieces of meat.
Braised chicken and chestnuts is a fall and winter favorite that many people can’t get enough of. It combines the saucy, bold savory flavors of the chicken cooked with a generous amount of condiments with the starchy and sweet chestnuts that become soft and melting in the long cooking time.
When roasting whole chickens, chestnuts make great stuffing because of their starchiness and sweetness.
As a staple themselves, chestnuts are often added in staple dishes to boost the texture and flavor, like in congees with other beans and grains, or steamed rice. Because it’s quite similar to pumpkin, sweet potato and taro in texture and flavor, chestnuts are often seen together with them in sweet-flavored staples.The combination of chestnuts and chicken also makes delicious savory congee, by cooking rice, chestnuts, shitake mushroom and chicken breast meat. Adding a few shreds of ginger in the savory congee can elevate the flavor greatly.
To make savory chestnut rice dishes, an extra step to boast the fragrance is to line the steamer with a lotus leaf and then mix the rice with chestnuts, cured pork or sausage and shitake mushrooms, all chopped in smaller pieces to release maximum flavor and cook evenly. The lotus leaf can infuse the rice with a distinct aroma to tone down the richness.
Desserts are where chestnuts really shine. Peeled chestnuts are often steamed until they are very soft in texture and then mashed into a paste and stir-fried with sugar and oil to use as a filling for pastries, buns and cakes.
As delicious as chestnuts are, they are not suitable for consuming in large quantities. The calorie count of chestnuts is high — 100 grams of chestnuts boast around 214 calories, and that’s around 12 chestnuts. And eating too much chestnuts may also cause stomach discomfort and bloating. Some people may also have allergies to chestnuts, with symptoms that include itching, swelling, wheezing and redness.
A healthier and easier peel version of the wintertime street snack favorite for home kitchens.
500 grams of chestnuts, preferably the Qianxi variety
5 grams of salt
20 grams of honey
Water and cooking oil
1. Examine the chestnuts thoroughly and throw away any chestnuts with wormholes on the surface. Clean the hard shells with water and pat dry.
2. Take a small knife to cut lengthwise on the rounder side of the chestnut, avoid cutting into the flesh and be very careful not to injure yourself. Secure the chestnuts with a towel if necessary.
3. Put the chestnuts in a pot and add enough water to cover them, add in the salt and boil for 5 minutes before turning down the heat to simmer for another 10 minutes.
4. Take out the chestnuts and pat dry to remove the moisture on the surface, add in a mixture of honey, cooking oil and some water into the chestnuts and toss until they are evenly coated with the syrup.
5. Line a baking pan with foil and place the chestnuts on it, making sure every chestnut is standing individually to ensure even cooking.
6. Bake the chestnuts in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees Celsius for 20 to 25 minutes, take them out and coat with the honey mixture again to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes.