The toasty scent of roasting chestnuts defined my holiday vacations. As a child, I’d go with my mom on the train from New Jersey to window-shop and see the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Those chestnuts, sold in brown paper bags from street cart vendors, kept our fingers warm as we peeled back their shells while strolling to the sounds of bells and taxi horns.
The story of the American chestnut’s revival is one of resilience, ingenuity and hope. This magnificent tree once filled our forests from Georgia to Canada, stretching west through Ohio to southern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. One out of every four hardwood trees in our country was a chestnut. Nicknamed the “bread tree,” the chestnut was a staple food — boiled and mashed, dried and ground into flour, eaten as a snack both raw and roasted.
At the turn of the century, the Asian chestnut tree was introduced to home gardens and public spaces. Unfortunately, it carried a virus that spread through our forests, wiping out nearly all of the native chestnut trees within 30 years.
Thanks to the work of biologists and ecologists, such as Philip Rutter of Badgersett Research Farm in Canton, Minn., our beautiful local chestnuts are back. They crossed the American chestnut with other varieties to create a newer one that is beautiful and blight-resistant. These trees don’t yield nuts as big or attractive as those of the Asian and European species that grow in California, but they are easier to work with and are delicious.
Our local chestnuts, from southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, are creamy, mild and slightly sweet. Now is the time for local chestnuts. Find them in bulk in the produce section of food co-ops. Store them unwrapped in the crisper compartment of the refrigerator for several weeks.
Chestnut-Cranberry Maple Breakfast Bomb
Note: This recipe makes a dessert-worthy breakfast, just right for a holiday brunch. To roast and peel chestnuts: With a small paring knife, score the chestnuts by making an X on the flat of the nut. Then place on a baking sheet and set in a 350-degree oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. When the nuts are cool enough to handle, peel off the shells, being careful to remove the dark-brown pith that covers the nuts as well. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 c. fresh cranberries
• 1/4 c. maple syrup
• 2 c. plain Greek yogurt (whole milk is best, but any will work)
• 2 tbsp. maple or brown sugar
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1 lb. chestnuts, roasted and peeled, cut in half if too large
Combine the cranberries and maple syrup in a small saucepan and set over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries pop open, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool. (This may be done ahead and the cranberries held in a covered bowl in the refrigerator until ready to use.)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar and vanilla. Portion the yogurt into separate bowls or glasses or turn into a serving bowl. Top with the cranberries, then the roasted chestnuts.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 400 Fat 13 g Sodium 80 mg
Carbohydrates 64 g Saturated fat 8 g Total sugars 30 g
Protein 7 g Cholesterol 40 mg Dietary fiber 5 g
Exchanges per serving: ½ milk, 1 starch, 3 carb, 2½ fat.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.