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The nut immortalized in holiday song makes for great eating, too

By Su Reid
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A little trivia: The phrase "food of the gods" might well refer to chestnuts, which, legend has it, grew abundantly on Mount Olympus.

Such European countries as France, where they're called maroons and used as a staple in side dishes and desserts, and Italy, where chestnut festivals are held throughout the countryside to celebrate the October harvest, hold chestnuts in equally high regard. In America, however, these sweet-tasting nuts are more of a rarity, primarily thanks to an early 20th-century blight that destroyed most of the country's chestnut trees.

What they look like: A hard, leathery dark brown shell (called a burr) and bitter brown inner skin surround a single nut.

Selection tips: Look for firm, plump nuts with no visible blemishes.

Storage tips: Fresh chestnuts can be stored in a plastic bag or covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or in the freezer for as long as four months. For the best results, leave the nuts in their shells until you're ready to use them.

How to eat them: These versatile nuts can be roasted, boiled, pureed, dried, preserved, candied, or simply eaten raw. When it comes to roasting, there are several ways to get the job done.

To begin, soak the nuts in a bowl of water for 30 minutes, then drain well. Cut a slit or an X in the shell (on the rounded side), making sure to penetrate the shell completely so it won't explode while cooking.

To roast (over an open fire), arrange nuts in a single layer in a chestnut pan. Place over an open flame; roast 25 minutes, shaking frequently.

To cook them in the oven, arrange the chestnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet, then roast at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

To microwave, place a maximum of 12 nuts in a single layer on a microwave-safe dish, then cook on HIGH for two minutes.

Let the nuts cool for only about five minutes (longer will make the shells hard to remove), then peel.

If you merely want to peel the nuts, a little heat will still be helpful. Two ways to make the job easier: Place the nuts in a saucepan, cover them with cold water, and bring the water to a boil. Cook them for four minutes, then remove from heat, let them cool briefly, and peel. Or, bake them in a single layer on a baking sheet at 425 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Cool briefly before peeling.

Peak growing season: Chestnuts enjoy a relatively long growing season, from September through February.

Health benefits: Because they contain less oil than most other nuts, chestnuts are relatively low in fat -- an important consideration for nut lovers. They're also an excellent source of fiber, which aids in digestion and helps lower cholesterol.

Nutritional info: One ounce (or 2-1/2) of these tasty nuts equals 60 calories, an impressive 2.3 grams of fiber, 0.7 gram of protein, a mere 0.6 gram of fat (0.1 of it saturated), 1.0 milligram of sodium, and no cholesterol.

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