Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima, Fagaceae) are a common yard tree in the southern Appalachians, and can easily be found this time of year, with their spiny burrs and nuts falling from the trees.
The Chinese Chestnut is not affected by the chestnut blight, which has so strongly affected the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) and chinquapin trees (Castanea pumila). Most people who have them growing in their yard do not pick and eat their chestnuts, and are happy for you to take them away.
We wash them in large buckets and discard the floaters, taking care to repeatedly stir the nuts.
Harvesting the chestnuts is the easy part. This is about 20 gallons, harvested in two hours by two adults and two children. This year Tom tried a new technique involving cutting the nuts in half with pruners and steaming them for twenty five minutes. While they are still hot, they can be squeezed out of their shells. Once they cool, they become increasingly difficult to separate from shells, try reheating them. An issue with most Chinese Chestnuts are the weevil larvae that are very common in the nuts. The larvae are edible, and supposedly taste like a “cross between buffalo and chestnuts”, but I prefer to discard the nuts that have been discolored by the larvae. Maybe one in three chestnuts will have larvae in them, but most of those with larvae are still edible if one has enough gustatory flexibility. If not, compost them.
You can then eat the steamed chestnuts out-of-hand, add them to soups, stews, chili, sweet bread and on and on. We generally freeze the peeled chestnuts, and sometime dry them. This year my favorite chestnut dish was a wild mushroom, eggplant frittata made with local eggs and milk, feta, and smoked gouda cheese.
The kids helped pick the wild mushrooms and chestnuts, but before you get too idyllic an image, heres some reality/disclosure. My daughter, whose palette is not especially adventurous, wouldn’t eat the frittata with the goodies, but instead ate a simpler version with chestnuts and sungold tomatoes.
The brown scaber stalk mushroom (Leccinum sp.) , a kind of bolete, (pictured on the left) was one of the edible mushrooms in the frittata. We also picked some slippery jack (Suillus granulatus), another common fall mushroom, found growing under pines (pictured to the right). Slippery jack lives up to its name with its slimy texture, which was artfully masked by the texture of the frittata.