One Great Plate: Roasted Chestnuts
The great American chestnut, devastated by blight in the mid-1900s, is on its way back thanks to the local Badgersett Research Farm in Canton. Phil Rutter, a restoration ecologist, has devoted the past 40 years to hybridizing blight-resistant American chestnut trees on his farm, tucked into the southeast corner of the state near the Iowa border. Living and working in a cottage built with wood from his trees, Rutter researches hickory and hazelnuts, too. He and his son Brandon lead seminars and workshops, ship trees and nuts from their farm, and post educational info on their website and blog.
American chestnuts are creamy, slightly crunchy, and delicately sweet without seeming starchy or bland. Unlike the larger European varieties grown in California, China, and Europe, American chestnuts have relatively soft shells and none of the bitter skin that clings to the nut. Badgersett’s trees reach 30 feet tall and produce great quantities of this delicious, versatile nut, once a staple of Native Americans and settlers alike. They are terrific when baked into cookies or simmered into soups and stews.
While most of our domestic hazelnuts come from Oregon, Badgersett and North Dakota farmers are growing hazelnut bushes without chemicals or fertilizers and producing large, flavorful nuts for natural food co-ops and farmers’ markets. When toasted, they become aromatic and deeply flavored, wonderful in salads and pastries. Local producers are working on processing hazelnut oil, distinctly flavored and great for salads and sautés. It may be ready for market in the next few years.
Hickory nuts resemble small, dark, rich-tasting pecans. They are tough to crack; you need a heavy-duty nutcracker or anvil to open them up. Badgersett has been crossing hickories and pecan trees that yield larger, milder nuts that are easier to shell, but they’re only available in limited quantities. Badgersett also sells hickory nuts in their shells, but if you prefer to skip that work, Biersach Hickory Nut Heaven ships them ready to eat. They do not store well, so put them in the freezer or enjoy them right away. Badgersett Research Corporation, 18606 Deer Rd., Canton, badgersett.com