Chestnuts: Low in Fat, Rich in Flavor

Chestnuts are the skinny sibling of the nut family. Unlike walnuts, almonds, peanuts (which are actually a legume) or any other nut you could name, chestnuts are nearly fat free and low in calories. They've been called “the grain that grows on trees,” and, being on the starchy side, they can stand in for a vegetable in many side dishes.

This wonderfully meaty, healthy nut turns up on American tables every Thanksgiving in the traditional turkey stuffing, but chestnuts are so superb it's a pity we only enjoy them once a year. Fresh chestnuts are in season right now, and you can also find bags of pre-shelled frozen chestnuts from Italy at some specialty food stores. Seek them out and you'll discover how versatile and useful they can be. If you can't find fresh or frozen chestnuts, don't substitute canned or bottled chestnuts; the taste and texture won't be the same.

Chestnuts might be more appreciated in this country's kitchens if a terrible blight from Asia hadn't decimated the American chestnut tree a century ago. Legend has it the blight first appeared at the Bronx Zoo in 1904; in any case, it soon spread across the country and nearly obliterated the once-flourishing tree. Scientists have been struggling ever since to breed a blight-resistant American chestnut.

Until they succeed, we have to rely on imported chestnuts, and I have a bagful in my freezer waiting to be savored. I used some to make a pumpkin chestnut soup not long ago, and was struck by how unbelievably creamy the texture was, for a broth-based soup with no cream at all.

So I decided to see if I could make a rich, carbonara-style pasta sauce without any full fat cream or eggs. It was an experiment well worth the effort, because the end result was a thoroughly tasty and satisfying sauce, perfect with the spelt spaghetti from Buon Italia I'd been eager to try. As luck would have it, our friend Liz dropped by just in time to be a guinea pig. We all agreed the sauce was a success.

Kat's Chestnut Carbonara Sauce with Spelt Spaghetti:

1 1/2 cups fat free chicken broth

1 1/2 cups whole chestnuts, peeled

1 Tbs olive oil

6 oz Canadian bacon

1/3 cup shallots, scallions, or onions, finely chopped

10 oz fresh shitake mushrooms

2/3 cups skim milk

1 1/2 cups frozen petit pois

1/2 tsp dried thyme

salt and pepper to taste

1 16 oz package spelt spaghetti or other whole grain pasta

2 Tbs reduced fat sour cream

1/4 cup grated Parmesan

Bring the chicken broth to a boil and add the chestnuts. Cook till chestnuts are tender (I cooked mine in the pressure cooker, so it only took five minutes; on the stove, you'll need about half an hour or so.)

Set aside and cool; puree in a blender or food processor.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the Canadian bacon briefly, about two minutes each side. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add the mushrooms and shallots to the pan and sauté for a minute or two, then add the pureed chestnuts and skim milk, stirring well. Add the petit pois, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste, and cook for several minutes longer, stirring constantly, till the sauce thickens and bubbles a bit.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta till al dente, about 8 minutes for dried, less if you're using fresh (check frequently so you don't overcook it.)

Just before serving, add the sour cream, bacon, and Parmesan to the sauce and mix well. Toss with pasta and serve, adding additional pepper and Parmesan to taste.

 

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