Manfredi to the rescue with chestnuts
Fresh chestnuts from Fontanini 's Fruit and Nuts, Manjimup. Picture: Astrid Volzke/The West Australian

We may all know the tune of the Christmas carol Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, but what do we actually know about eating them?

With his Italian background, Aussie chef Stefano Manfredi is coming to the rescue.

"Chestnuts have been grown in Australia for over 100 years, but unless you've got a Mediterranean heritage or you know somebody that's got that heritage or you've really persevered, you won't really know how to use chestnuts," he says.

And for those who have tried chestnuts, it's usually been on the streets of European cities where they're roasted and eaten as a warming winter treat.

But most Australians leave chestnuts off the shopping list because they don't know how to prepare or cook them.

According to Jane Casey, spokesperson for the Australian chestnut industry, one in three Australians has never tasted a chestnut - and with an average price of $4.99/kg, cost is no excuse.

"They're extremely versatile, and once you know how to crack the nut, so to speak, you can use them in lots of different ways," says Manfredi, who has fond memories of eating them as a boy in Italy.

Leading chef and owner of Sydney's Balla and the Central Coast's Manfredi at Bells restaurants, Manfredi says now that chestnuts are in season, he's using them all through his menus.

"This winter, I am challenging Australians to try chestnuts in three simple ways. Score and roast chestnuts for a delicious pre-dinner snack. Boil, peel and add chestnuts to soups to thicken and flavour them as an alternative to potato. Or grill, peel and puree with sugar and water for a sweet alternative to jam for your toast at breakfast," he says.

"I was recently at the Wandi Nut Festival (in Victoria's Wandiligong) and there must have been 3000 people there, and they were roasting chestnuts in huge pans on an open fire. Well, they must have gone through I don't know how many hundreds of kilos - and people just loved them.

"Once people are introduced to chestnuts in winter when it's cold, and you get them in little cones, they're easy to peel, they make sense and they're beautiful."

There are different ways to eat a chestnut. The first, in true Aussie style, is to roast or grill the chestnut, which enhances the nutty flavour and gives the flesh a richer colour.

Other recipes require chestnuts to be boiled, which keeps the nutty flesh soft and pale.

"Australians can try scoring a few chestnuts and popping them on the barbecue or under the grill as a delicious pre-dinner snack," Manfredi says.

The chef likens the texture of a cooked chestnut to that of a baked potato, soft and crumbly.

"The taste is unique and nutty but subtle, which is why it makes such a great accompaniment for sweet and savoury dishes," Manfredi says.

"My favourite way to enjoy chestnuts is as a sumptuous stuffing for roast turkey breasts. Roughly chop peeled chestnuts and combine with breadcrumbs, butter, garlic, parmesan, parsley and Italian mustard fruits, season and fill turkey breasts generously. It's winter comfort food at it's best.

"Because the nut is sweet, it's really good with pork too."

The sweetness of the chestnut also lends itself to being used as a flour for cakes or as a spread.

Although chestnuts are thought of as being European produce, Australia has a booming chestnut industry, producing about 1200 tonnes a year, the majority of which comes from around Bright and Myrtleford in Victoria. They are grown on trees and harvested in autumn, with the season running until July.

RECIPE: CHESTNUTS, BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND PANCETTA
Serves 6-8 as an accompaniment to grilled or roast chicken, duck or quail.

300g of chestnuts
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
50g pancetta, sliced
350g Brussels sprouts, sliced into 6-8 pieces top to bottom
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

To prepare the chestnuts, score the skin of each with a sharp knife and place them in a pot of cold water with a couple of pinches of salt.

Bring to the boil and drain them immediately. Allow them to cool a little, and then peel. They peel better when still warm.

In a pan heat the extra virgin olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, pancetta, Brussels sprouts and the chestnuts.

Lightly fry for 7-8 minutes until the Brussels sprouts soften.

Add the parsley, then season with salt and pepper and serve.

RECIPE: CHESTNUT, RICOTTA AND HONEY CREAM
Can be used for pancakes, topping for cakes and accompaniment to fresh or poached fruit. Also delicious on fresh or toasted bread.

600g fresh chestnuts
1 tbsp honey
250g fresh ricotta
1 tsp vanilla essence
150ml pure cream
1 tbsp caster sugar

Score chestnuts by cutting a small "x" on the flat side with the tip of a sharp knife and place in boiling water till tender.

Cut each chestnut in half and scoop out the flesh with a teaspoon. Place flesh in a food processor with honey and vanilla and a couple of tablespoons of cold water. Pulse to a smooth paste.

Place chestnut paste into a bowl and mix with ricotta. In a separate bowl, whip cream with caster sugar to soft peaks.

Fold into chestnut ricotta and it's ready to use.

Tip: Serve with thick toast or homemade pancakes as a weekend treat.

Recipes created by Stefano Manfredi, of Manfredi at Bells and Balla.

The West Australian

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