What has a glossy, mahogany colored hard shell, a mild, subtle flavor, compliments apples and chocolate, can be boiled or roasted, is found on many harvest tables and dates back over 40 million years ago?
By JASPER J. MIRABILE JR.
The answer is easy my friends — it’s the chestnut.
It’s harvest time in Kansas and I’m not talking about just any harvest, I’m talking about the Annual Kansas Chestnut Harvest at Chestnut Charlie’s Chestnut Orchard outside Lawrence.
Before we get into talking about Charlie’s orchard, let’s talk a little bit about the chestnut. History tells us that chestnut cultivation was common some 6,000 years ago in Asia and were planted by the early Romans.
Chestnuts prospered for more than 40 million years in eastern North America and at one time the Indians, along with the European settlers, used the chestnut for the sweet nuts, but also for the long-grained wood of the chestnut tree.
The chestnut industry took a turn for the worse about 100 years ago, when a blight killed millions of chestnut trees in America. It has been noted that scientists called it one of the worst ecological disasters in North America when a fungus from Japan arrived in New York, killing millions and millions of chestnut trees.
In the past 50 years, farmers have been planting trees across America to ensure the growth of chestnuts once again. Thanks to people and farmers like NovoGradac, who is also known as Chestnut Charlie, we have chestnut trees that have been planted in our area and he’s making it his mission to restore the chestnut and the industry in the Midwest.
Charlie started planting chestnut trees in 1995 on some old farm ground north of Lawrence. Following organic practices from the start, the orchard has been certified organic annually since 1998.
Charlie grew up around wild black walnut trees in eastern Kansas, and being inspired by the visionary economist, J. Russell Smith, author of Tree Crops, a Permanent Agriculture, Charlie has always been driven to plant trees that produce food.
As for this year’s crop, Charlie claims that since we had rain in Kansas in the spring and not in June or July, and then some in early August, the harvest started late. When the summer heat arrived in September, several trees died after 3 years of drought.
Then one of those crazy Kansas winds blew through over Labor Day weekend and dropped a bunch of burrs that were too green. Despite all that, they have begun harvesting some really good looking nuts.
Guess what? Freshly-harvested, organic chestnuts are available and ready to send from Chestnut Charlie’s orchard to you. He began shipping Monday.
The harvest is still ongoing, so please be patient with him while he makes every attempt to promptly fill your order.
Charlie says chestnuts sweeten over time. The starches change to sugars and they dry down a bit, even in our ideal condition of 32 degrees and high humidity. You can safely store chestnuts in your refrigerator for a couple of months in a vented bag or a double paper bag. If surface mold develops on the skin, wash the nuts before using. If they have dried a bit, cut down on the roasting time.
For use in recipes, such as for stuffing, soup, desserts, the best method is to roast, peel and then freeze the chestnuts.
Yes, you are invited to harvest your own fresh chestnuts this year with Chestnut Charlie. Chestnut Charlie’s orchards expects to be open for a limited chestnut gathering this weekend.
You can also find Charlie at the Lawrence Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and at some local grocery stores in the Kansas City area.
For more information about local chestnuts, ordering and U-Pick, please contact: Charles NovoGradac and Debbie Milks at Chestnut Charlie’s Chestnuts, Box 1166, Lawrence, KS 66044 or 785-841-8505
I’m already thinking about chestnut stuffing for my Thanksgiving table. The more I think about it, I think I hope will make a special chestnut soup to celebrate the harvest.
Here is a recipe for a soup that I worked on for Hen House Markets and for Chestnut Charlie’s a few years ago. I tried to use as many local ingredients that I could find in the area. I do hope you serve it on your harvest table this year.
Local Chestnut & Apple Cider Soup
2 cups fresh Charlie’s Chestnuts
1 tablespoons Shatto butter
1 cup leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced
3 local apples (cored and cubed)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 cup brandy
1 teaspoon apple pie spice
1 tsp salt
Cracked pepper to taste
4 cups Louisburg Apple Cider
1 1/2 cups Shatto Half & Half
Fresh thyme sprigs
Boil chestnuts in water for a few minutes, remove a few at a time, chop in half with a heavy knife and peel with your fingers.
In a large saute pan, add butter and leeks and saute 4 to 5 minutes. Add apples, chestnuts and brown sugar, reduce with brandy and saute for just a few minutes. Season with apple pie spice, salt and cracked pepper. Set aside.
In a large pot, bring apple cider to a boil. Add chestnut/apple mixture. Cook about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and puree in blender. Place soup back in pot, add Half & Half along with thyme. Stir until well blended and simmer until ready to serve. Adjust seasonings as desired. Serve in soup bowls, add a dollop of sour cream, a drizzle of brandy and chopped chestnuts to garnish.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.