A Guide to Chestnuts for Newbies: Picking, Roasting and a Few Recipe Ideas

We were excited to get an invitation from our friend Laure to join her family for a day of chestnut picking at Skyline Chestnut Farm and rock climbing at Castle Rock State Park. (Laure is also known as Frog Mom — you might remember that we gave away her awesome book about hiking with kids recently). A confession here, I’ve been rather food-obsessed my whole life, but I have never picked or cooked with fresh chestnuts. Water chestnuts (out of a can) once in a while, but fresh chestnuts never. I’m not sure I can even recall a memorable chestnut-eating experience. Around here they don’t sell them from carts like they do in NYC and you don’t see them much (the fresh ones at least) outside of farmers’ markets.

I think a big part of being a foodie is celebrating a curiosity about new things. And since chestnuts are a new ingredient for my family, Luca and I thought it would be something fun that we could discover together. No better way to start our discovery than by seeing where they come from. Unfortunately when the big day for our adventure arrived, we were running late (no surprise to anyone who knows me!), and we pulled up just as Laure’s gang was heading out, full buckets in hand, ready to do some kid-friendly rock climbing. So we newbies were on our own!

We had such a fabulous adventure. The setting was stunning, and there were an abundance of trees to climb and piles of leaves to jump in. In retrospect, though, I don’t recommend chestnut picking with an itsy bitsy one. There’s a lot of bending up and down on sloped ground and many prickly things, so it’s kind of a back breaking exercise fraught with hazards when you’re lugging around a little one in a baby bjorn. I would recommend reserving this adventure for steady walkers and/or consider bringing along an extra pair of hands to share baby-holding duties.

Now back to the chestnuts! Knowing next to nothing before our visit, we learned a few things which we wanted to pass along to other chestnut newbies out there:

  • There are European, American and Asian varieties of chestnuts which have slight differences in both appearance and flavor. The American variety has a little bit of fuzz on it’s shiny dark brown shell and it tends to have a sweeter flavor. You might be surprised to know that a chestnut is more like a potato or taro root than a walnut. It’s starchy and crumbly.
  • Chestnut trees hybridize themselves quite easily, so where there are a diversity of trees growing together, you probably won’t experience distinct varieties.
  • You do not pick chestnuts from the tree, only off the ground. In fact they are only ripe after they have fallen. So “picking” entails searching around on the ground rather than climbing ladders and reaching into high branches (making this a good U-pick activity for kids.)
  • The outermost layer of a chestnut is a prickly shell, almost like a hard, spikey tennis ball or a sea urchin. Inside that layer you’ll find one or more of the shiny, brown chestnuts we’re all more used to seeing. Because of the prickly outer layer, sturdy gloves are a must. Luckily that prickly covering splits after the nut falls so harvesting the nut is not too perilous if you have hand protection. [The farm didn’t have kid-sized gloves. We made do, but you might consider bringing some if you happen to have a pair.]
  • The key word of advice from my chestnut expert, Laure, was to go for the big ones. When you consider the effort to prepare chestnuts (blanching, roasting, shelling), the little ones hardly seem worth the effort. In addition to size you want to look for chestnuts that are firm, shiny and feel heavy for their size.
  • Our most surprising realization of the day was was that  a majority of our fellow pickers were speaking Japanese. I suppose I had always associated chestnuts with European cooking — autumnal desserts, accompaniments to roast pork, etc. Upon returning home,  we googled “Japanese chestnut recipes” and learned that chestnuts are one of the most beloved autumn flavors in Japan. Many people look forward all year to a simple rice dish called Kurigohan, which is essentially chestnuts (sometimes roasted) cooked together with rice and some other basic seasonings.
  • Upon getting our chestnuts home, I realized that getting them shelled is not such a simple task. Many sites instruct you to slit the chestnut’s hard, shiny shell with an “x” (to provide a way for steam to escape and make peeling easier), roast for 20 minutes at 400 degrees, wrap in a towel for 5 minutes and slide off the skins. Sounds easy, right? My first batch had me cursing. These suckers are slippery and hard to cut into (a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen if you ask me) and the tough, brown inner shell and papery husk inside that can be pesky to separate from the rather delicate, crumbly edible part of the nut. After a little more research, I recommend Chef John’s technique: make a single, deep cut with a serrated knife, blanch, then roast, then wrap in a towel to steam in their residual heat. Check out his video tutorial which explains this much better than I ever could. Save yourself a big headache because this is definitely the way to go.
  • You should be able to find jarred or pureed chestnuts in lieu of fresh. I never noticed these products before, but now that we’ve been looking we’ve spied them on the shelves of fancier grocery stores and Asian markets.

We picked out a few recipes to showcase our haul: plain old roasted chestnuts (as in “Chestnuts roasting over an open fire…”); Fuji Mama’s KurigohanRoasted Pork with Balsamic Vinegar and Chestnut Glaze from Epicurious, and Dan Lepard’s Mont Blanc layer cake (meringue layers with a chestnut-ricotta cream, dark chocolate and whipped cream). We’re working our way through these and will report back. Now that we’re midway through our chestnut adventure I must confess that the jury is still out. My family has not yet  been converted into chestnut devotees. Let’s just say that we’re on the fence but we’re keeping a open mind.

There may be another week  or two of chestnut picking where you are, but they’ll be gone again in a flash.

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Winners: Our Giveaway & Devil’s Food Drop Cookies

We have two winners today.  One for our giveaway of Laure Latham’s (Frog Mom) fantastic new book : Best Hikes with Kids in the Bay Area and a cookie recipe I recently tried out and had tremendous success with.  First the giveaway winner: Liz Farrell!

Liz happens to be a dear friend who has written guest posts for us in the past (Off The Grid at Fort Mason and Fort Mason Farmer’s Market) and I am delighted that she will now have her own copy of this book.  For those of you who entered and did not win, thank you for taking the time to enter and supporting Laure and us.  You may now just have to buy this wonderful book. 🙂

Laure, thank you for your generosity in participating in our first giveaway!  You are truly remarkable and have totally inspired us to hit the trails more frequently with our kids.  I cannot think of anything else I would have wanted as our first giveaway.  Stacie and I love supporting local mom-dad-entrepreneurs, especially those with cool products like yours.

Our other winner – are the Devil’s Food Drop Cookies that I baked with Ria last week.  I could have eaten all of them with a tall glass of cold milk, but we decided to send some to school for Ria’s teachers and also gave some away to neighbors and friends.  With the holidays fast approaching, we are definitely thinking of cookies. If we happen to get invited to a cookie swap like the one we hosted at Seesaw last year, this will be the cookie we bake.  I am hoping one of my friends will read this and decide to host to a kid-friendly cookie swap (and invite us).

Here are some cookies you can make from our blog, if you are considering hosting or are invited to a cookie swap before the holidays.

Sally’s Lebkucken

Easiest Chocolate Chip Cookies

Compost Cookies (good way to use up some Halloween Candy)

Chocolate Truffles

Chocolate & Sea Salt Sables

Devil’s Food Drop Cookies from Better Homes and Gardens – Best Loved Cookies

Ria summed these cookies up best by telling her babysitter, “We baked the best cookies in the world today.  When you bite into them, the inside is all melt-y and chocolate-y.  Kind of amazing”.  Clearly, she ate a few too many as they came out of the oven. 🙂  She did “joke” about how they looked like “poop patties” and I could not help but laugh even though it meant encouraging “potty talk”!

Ingredients

  • 1 12 oz package (2 cups) semi-sweet chocolate pieces (we used chocolate chips)
  • 2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup chopped pecans, almonds or cashews

Method

  1. Preheat over to 350F.  Grease a cookie sheet and set aside
  2. In a medium saucepan combine 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate, the unsweetened chocolate and butter.  Cook and stir on low heat until melted.  Remove from heat
  3. Add eggs, sugar, flour, vanilla and baking powder.  Beat with a wooden spoon until combined.  Stir in the remaining chocolate pieces and nuts
  4. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls 2 inches apart on the greased cookie sheet.  Bake from 12-14 minutes or until edges are firm and surfaces are dull and crackled
  5. Cool on cookie sheet for 2 minutes.  Transfer cookies to wire rack and let cool

Our First Giveaway, The Banana Slug Hike and Laure’s Chocolate and Sea Salt Sables

These days Stacie and I are among Laure’s (Frog Mom’s) biggest fans.  She recently took us an amazing hike (rain notwithstanding) at the Purisma Creek Redwoods in Half Moon Bay.  We tramped across creeks, collected maple leaves, built fairy houses and had an unbelievable lunch (sandwiches, pork buns, savory apple-cheddar scones and freshly baked chocolate and sea salt sables) protected from the rain under the tall canopy of redwood trees. Much to the children’s delight, we encountered about a “million” banana slugs also out for walk along the damp trail, as well as little colonies of mushrooms nestled among the pine needles. As we made our way to a small clearing, Laure magically whipped up a round of hot cocoa for the kids and they let the rain drops cool their chocolate to the perfect sipping temperature. So what at first seemed like a stroke of bad luck (gray skies, wet weather, mud) ended up making our day even more wonderful in the end (ethereal ambiance, banana slugs, hot chocolate). Pure magic!

We had waffled a bit before setting off that morning, but I am so glad that Laure “gently nudged us” to to make the drive and brave the wet weather.  The children did remarkably well (so many puddles to jump in!) and we found ourselves completely inspired by Laure’s energy, enthusiasm and knowledge of family friendly hiking, not to mention her skills as a baker. Bay Area trails here we come!

On the heels of this fantastic adventure, we are thrilled to share Laure’s hiking finds and recommendations with you with our first ever, super special giveaway. We’re giving away a signed copy of Laure’s fabulous new book, “Best Hikes with Kids in the San Francisco Bay Area”.  You can find details on how to enter at the end of this post. But first the recipe of the delicious chocolate and sea salt sables that I ate way, way too many of….

Chocolate and Sea Salt Sables (adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques – Laure has made this recipe her own by tweaking it a bit and using salted butter and cocoa nibs.  Salt & chocolate are a match made in heaven. Yum!)

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 8 tbsps (1 stick) salted butter
  • 6 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
  • 1 extra large egg yolk
  • 1 tsp coffee extract (optional)
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips and cocoa nibs
  • 1 to 2 tbsp light brown sugar

Method

  1. Sift the flour and cocoa powder together.  Add the salt.
  2. In the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and confectioner’s sugar at medium-high speed for 3-4 minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy.
  3. Add the egg yolk and coffee extract (if using), and beat until fluffy again.
  4. Add the dry ingredients slowly, and mix at slow speed.  The dough should be crumbly and not quite bound together.
  5. Right before dough comes together, add the chocolate chips and cocoa nibs just to incorporate
  6. Shape the dough into logs about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
  7. Roll the logs in the light brown sugar and wrap each one in plastic
  8. Refrigerate until very cold and firm
  9. Preheat oven to 350F
  10. Slice the dough into 1/4 inch thick rounds and place them 1/2 inch apart on on parchment lined baking sheet.  Bake 12-15 minutes until set.

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The GIVEAWAY: Frog Mom’s Best Hikes with Kids in the San Francisco Bay Area – an essential resource for Northern California parents and the perfect gift for your Bay Area mom or dad friends if you live elsewhere.  To enter, you MUST leave a comment at the end of this post (and/or do one or all four of the things below) telling us about your favorite hike/walk/stroll/stroller walk with kids or your favorite trail snack. It can be a urban walk/hike as well to the ice-cream shop as well.  🙂 Be sure to include your email address on the comment form  (it’ll be visible only to us) so we can contact you if you win.

The giveaway will be open till 12:00 midnight PST Monday, November 7th, 2011.  We’ll select a lucky winner using random.org and announce the winner here on the blog.  Good luck and thanks for participating!!

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MORE WAYS TO WIN OUR GIVEAWAY, READ ON……

Because this book is so great and we know you’re going to want a copy, we’ve included a few other ways to win. We’ll give you an additional contest entry for each of the following, up to 5 entries total per person. To register your additional giveaway entries, please let us know that you liked/followed/subscribed in your comment about favorite kid-friendly hikes and trail snacks.

  • Like A Little Yumminess on Facebook or let us know that you already like us.
  • Follow @alittleyum on Twitter or let us know that you already follow us.
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  • Like Frog Mom on Facebook, or let us know you already follow Frog Mom.