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Chestnuts: a Holiday Classic

When most people think of chestnuts, the classic holiday song comes to mind. While roasting chestnuts over an open fire is often thought of as an old-fashioned winter tradition, there are many ways to prepare these sweet and satisfying nuts that are in season from September through February. Raw chestnuts in the shell are often used as festive table décor, but enjoying the flavorful inner flesh is a holiday custom in and of itself.

Chestnuts are the large, edible nuts of chestnut trees, which have been cultivated all over the world. Cultivation began as far back as 3,000 years ago in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean, and then spread to Asia and North America. An unfortunate blight damaged much of the crop in North America in the early 1900s, and though chestnut tree farms are on the rise, most fresh chestnuts are imported from either Europe or Asia.

Chestnuts resemble large acorns with a flat side and a dark, leathery shell (called the “burr”) in varying shades of brown. Inside the hard casing is a light, creamy flesh that is starchy and slightly sweet when cooked. Chestnuts vary from other conventional nuts as they contain a high amount of starch with low levels of oil.

Roasting and blanching are the most common ways to cook fresh chestnuts, which will loosen the flesh from the tough, bitter shell. Once cooked, it’s best to peel them while still warm, but if they cool and become tough to peel, simply reheat them in a hot oven for several minutes.

With a mildly sweet flavor, chestnuts can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes. Puréed chestnuts lend a starchy, creamy texture to soups and sauces, but they’re also great when served chopped in a salad or tossed with roasted vegetables for a satisfying side dish. Candied chestnuts highlight the sweet notes for a simple holiday dessert and, of course, they’re just as delicious when roasted whole and enjoyed while still warm.

When shopping for fresh chestnuts in our Produce Department, look for plump, unblemished chestnuts with a smooth, firm shell. Fresh chestnuts should be kept in a cool, dry place, and peeled chestnuts can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed container for up to a month, or frozen for up to a year.