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Before the chestnut blight hit the forests of the eastern United States in the late 1800s, an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees dominated the woodlands. The trees were magnificent and beautiful, reaching 100 feet tall with trunks 6 feet in diameter.

The wood was exceptionally rot resistant, straight-grained and visually beautiful. The annual drop of the nutrient-rich nuts supported many forms of domestic and wild animals as well as Native Americans and settlers from other lands.

By 1950, only 50 to 100 chestnut trees remained.

European chestnuts and Asian varieties, however, were resistant to the blight. These were imported and planted so that American markets could no longer lack for chestnuts. The problem was that most didn’t taste as good as the American natives.

I used to find the remnants of these native chestnuts occasionally along back roads in Pennsylvania. The giant trees had died, but their roots continued to send up sprouts that reach about 8 to 10 feet in height before they were taken by the chestnut blight. But sometimes that was tall enough for the sprouts to flower and form a few nuts, and I have eaten American chestnuts both raw out of hand and roasted. They are delicious, and their deliciousness only underscores what a tragedy befell the king of the forest.

I asked Greg Miller of the Empire Chestnut Company (www.empirechestnut.com) which kinds of chestnuts are the most flavorful.

“There are three species of chestnuts that are grown commercially for food: Chinese, European (also known as Italian), and Japanese,” he said. “In my opinion, the very best-tasting chestnuts are Chinese. Second best would be American if we can ever reconstitute our native trees in enough quantity.

But second best has to go to European. And last place goes to Japanese. In Europe and California, there are many Euro-Japanese hybrids being grown — ‘Colossal’ being an example — but it surely won’t win any quality competition.”

Miller cites another component of chestnut quality: condition.

“Condition depends on the care the chestnuts have been given while they develop on the tree and especially after harvest,” he said.

“When chestnuts first fall from the tree, they are about 3 percent sugar. As they dry, the sugar content may increase up to 25 percent. But dried chestnuts usually become rancid over time.”

Of whatever species, good chestnuts are sweet and flavorful. They are low in fat and high in complete carbohydrates and in trace minerals, more like potatoes or grains than other nuts. As such, they are versatile.

They’re excellent as a meat garnish, such as in chestnut stuffing for the holiday bird. And they have an affinity for game of any sort, for sausage, and pork. They can be dried and ground

into flour for pancakes, muffins and breads.

Add them to a chicken and vegetable stir-fry. Or simply roast them by making a slit in the shell (to prevent bursting), then roasting them in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.

When our wood stove is going, I just set them on the top of the stove until they’re tender (don’t forget the slit).

When buying them in a store, look for chestnuts with heft and shells that are tight.

They should be plump and fresh-looking. Don’t buy them peeled, or they surely will have lost quality. Most of the chestnuts sold in our stores during the holiday season are crosses between European and Japanese or Chinese types.

Whatever their parentage, they’ll be just fine as long as they’re fresh.

The shells must be removed, of course, before using, but also their bitter inner skin should be peeled away too. Follow the shelling instructions in the recipe below, and after they’re shelled, drop them into a saucepan of boiling water for a minute, then take them off the heat.

Pluck them from the hot water one by one, and peel away the inner skin while they’re still warm. If the inner skin refuses to come loose on a few of them, set those chestnuts aside and re-boil for a half minute, then try again.

I first ran across this creamy-sweet chestnut puree on a visit to France. Among many other culinary discoveries I made in that blessed land, the chestnut puree stood out for its usefulness and delectability. I learned to add a tablespoon to my oatmeal, stir it into yogurt, top vanilla ice cream with it and spread it on crepes; in other words, use it anywhere you’d use Nutella.

If you’re ambitious, you can also make a Mont Blanc by topping a mound of it with whipped cream so it resembles a snow-capped mountain.

Puree de Marrons

Makes about 1 cup

2 pounds chestnuts, unshelled

1¾ cups sugar

1 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

— Pinch salt

Cut an X through the shell of the nuts. Roast about 10 chestnuts at a time in a 400 degree oven (it’s easiest to peel the nuts while they’re still warm) for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the skin starts to peel back around the X.

Transfer chestnuts onto a towel and peel off the shells as soon as they’re cool enough to handle. Remove the inner, bitter skins.

Once chestnuts are peeled and skinned, put them in a pot and cover them with about an inch of water. Bring the water to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the chestnuts are very tender when pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, combine sugar and water in a large skillet. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook until the sugar is dissolved.

Drain chestnuts. Purée in food processor or blender with 1/4 cup of the sugar water until smooth. You might have to do this in two batches. Add more liquid If you need it to puree.

Scrape chestnut purée into the pot with remaining sugar water and stir to combine. Add the vanilla and the salt.

Place over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s thick enough to not fall off a spoon when you turn it upside down. This only takes a few minutes.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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