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Native Cooking

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When we moved into the house we are in now, we were pleased to find many medicinal plantings and some mature chestnut trees. The chestnut had always been a favorite treat but I had never seen them growing. They drop from the tree when ripe in a little ball of spikes much like the porcupine's quills. Very nasty to step on or to touch.

Ideally, the spikey pod opens on impact with the ground and two or three perfect chestnuts roll out just waiting for you to gather. However, more often the pod opens on the tree and drops its bounty. Sometimes the whole unopened pod drops and is quite stubborn to open. If you aren't vigilant, the squirrels have their own gathering party. The chestnuts are ready during the first two weeks of October in our area.

Once, a professor from a local university came to the door and asked if he might study some of our trees. He was hoping they were survivors of the blight Endothia parasitica which came into this country via Asian saplings brought to Long Island, N.Y. in l904. The American chestnut once covered this country from Maine to Florida and west to Arkansas and was said to have a sweeter flavor than the European varieties. By 1940, the American chestnut was virtually gone. The professor took samples of our trees, which are Chinese-hybrid, to blend them genetically with the saplings of American chestnut to make the American tree more disease resistant.

In Native America there is pre-historic evidence that our ancestors used the nut as a flour for bread. In Asia today, canned chestnuts are relatively inexpensive and available. In Europe, especially France and Italy, whole canned chestnuts are used in a variety of ways. Sometimes a garnish, or pureed for use in soups or as a thickener, mixed into stuffings and candied in a syrup as a dessert.

My favorite way to eat them is simply roasted. I cut a cross in the flat side and roast them on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for about a half hour. I then poke them with a skewer and if they aren't soft, I up the oven to 400 degrees for another ten minutes. Let them cool for a few minutes until you can handle them, peel off the outer shell and devour.

To use them in recipes they need to be peeled and simmered. Cut the cross as for roasting and place them in a pan and cover with cold water. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, then let them cool off in the hot water. When cool enough, remove a few and take off the shell with the help of a paring knife. When you have done them all, heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan and stir them about until the membrane seems crisp. Place on a paper towel and use more toweling to rub off the membrane. Now you can use them whole or crumble for recipes.

Chestnut-Butternut Soup

1/2 pound chestnuts, prepared recipe ready
3 pound butternut, peeled, seeded, cut in chunks
1 large onion
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
2 tablespoons butter
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup apple juice or cider
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1-1/2 cups cream
Fresh ground pepper and salt

In a large saucepan (4-quart), melt butter and add to it chopped onion, celery and carrot. When this is wilted, not browned, add the squash and chestnuts. Put in the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 35-40 minutes, add ginger. Now puree all in a blender with the apple juice or cider. Add the cream, salt and pepper.

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Reheat and serve. Serves 6-8.

Chestnut Topping

This can be used to glaze a game roast, top sweet potatoes, pumpkin pudding, squash pie, etc.

2 cups of chestnuts, shelled, cooked and recipe ready
1-1/2 cups of maple syrup
4 tablespoons butter
Zest of 1 lemon or 1 small orange

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine chestnuts and maple syrup, stirring to coat each nut. Mash the nuts slightly. As the syrup softens, stir in the butter until melted and combined. Then stir in the zest and remove from heat. Let the topping stand until warm or room temperature. Use right away or store in the fridge for up to one week.

Venison meatballs in gravy, especially fruited game gravy, make a simple weeknight dinner when served with wild rice or sweet potato cakes. Or, you can serve smaller meatballs as an alternative to Swedish meatballs as an appetizer. Serve with toothpicks and a dipping sauce. Make game gravy with drippings from a game roast-red meat or fowl, just the way you would make gravy from a roast beef or chicken. For that extra dimension, melt a tablespoon or two of currant or plum jelly into the gravy and season with minced fresh sage.


(Venison) Meatballs

1-1/2 pounds ground venison
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup johnnycake or regular bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh herbs minced (sage, parsley, oregano or basil)
1 egg
1/3 cup water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Form meatballs 1-1/2 inch for dinner meatballs and 1-inch for appetizers. Place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake regular meatballs for 30-35 minutes, appetizer size for 20-25 minutes.