Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chestnuts Roasting

It's officially the Christmas Season and by now you've probably heard these lyrics somewhere: "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." I've always associated chestnuts with the holidays and I have many memories of being in New York City and Philadelphia, bundled up to the point where I could barely walk, rushing to get where I was going to get in from the cold, and smelling the roasty smoke of chestnuts on the grills of street vendors. It was a beautiful smell. Even the thought of that chestnut smoke makes my heart ache to visit Herald Square in December. Chestnuts are an "Up-North" thing, I thought.

My dad likes chestnuts a lot. He can't wait until they appear in the grocery stores and doesn't mind where they come from. He painstakingly carves little x's into the shells of each one before charring them on his BBQ grill. We always have them on Christmas and I admit they are the absolute last thing I ever thought would remotely be considered a local product. I almost fainted in Whole Foods this afternoon when I saw an enormous bin filled with Florida chestnuts.

But that's why I'm so glad I started this project. Writing this blog makes me keep my eyes open for the unexpected. It makes me try things and think about my food and the world in new ways. I learn things like this. Chestnuts come from Florida. Well, some of them do anyway. Right next to these homegrown chestnuts were red mesh bags of chestnuts imported all the way from Italy. There were also canned versions and a jarred chestnut cream that looked fancy and french.

I didn't buy any chestnuts today. The only reason why not is because chestnuts are quite perishable and must be refrigerated. I'm busy this week and won't be able to get to my parents' house to use their grill until next weekend. I would rather buy the chestnuts closer to when I plan to eat them in order to avoid waste and cluttering up my small refrigerator. I also want time to research some chestnut recipes. I've only ever had chestnuts roasted, but there are a million things you can do with them that are more creative than that. They are hugely popular in France and show up in the oddest of dishes where they are called marrons (also the name for the color of my hair). I think when I visited Paris a few years ago I recall seeing some sort of elaborate meringuey, chocolatey, chestnutty torte of some sort that was intriguing. In addition to desserts, chestnuts can be used in savory dishes. They are extremely versatile, so I want to see what I can come up with, but in the end I may just opt for plain. Plain is good. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

As I researched Florida Chestnuts, I found two growers who also take online orders, though it seems like the season is just closing up. I guess I discovered these a little too late. If you want some, they have plenty at the Fort Lauderdale Whole Foods.

Shamrock Square, in Monticello, Florida has an extremely informative website that will tell you all about Florida chestnuts. There are also some recipes and an interesting history. Turns out that American Chestnuts were once a staple of our diet and were common in American forests. Many people and animals depended on these trees for food and shelter until a blight caused by an invasive species wiped them all out. Finally, growers like Shamrock Square are helping the species make a comeback. Yet another important reason to eat local!

You can also order from Hillcrest Chestnuts in Lake City.

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