06 October 2006

Benito vs. the Farmer's Market: Apples & Chestnuts

Black Arkansas Apple
The Black Arkansas is an unusual apple variety. It's much smaller than those you see in the grocery store, and it's hard as a rock. If you threw this at someone, you could cause some serious injury. (I say this as someone who grew up with a peach tree in the backyard and a little brother. Unripe peaches hurt, ripe peaches make a mess, and rotten peaches mean that mom's going to make you strip in the back yard and hose off before coming in the house.)

It's a little hard to bite into, but from there, it eats like a normal apple. It's sort of woody and not very sweet. I've heard that this variety is ideal for cider making, and I'm a big fan of cider, both the natural unfiltered variety and the harder type.

The apples taste much better cooked. I baked the remaining apples (sliced and cored, kept the peels on) with some honey, butter, and cinnamon) for a side dish alongside the recent Combinations #6 dinner. The dark peels provided some lovely color. And there's something I like about the size and shape... Not the huge glossy yet flavorless apples you see in the stores (Red Delicious I'm looking at you), but this is a scrawny, scrappy little fruit that when properly prepared can reveal some delicious secrets.

I haven't eaten chestnuts since my trip to Italy ten years ago. I was there in December, and in most of the decent sized cities I could buy a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor to snack on while walking around the town in the evening. (Nothing like a warm snack to hold on to while bundled against the winter wind!) Typically the vendor would have a little fire going from wood or charcoal, and would roast the chestnuts on a perforated metal plate. You could smell them from a block away.

Here in the Memphis area, the pecan tree is our major nut tree. I actually like to buy them from my barber, whose family owns a substantial pecan grove in Mississippi. But we've got chestnuts as well--some farmed on purpose, others leftovers from plantings over a hundred years ago. Looking at a raw chestnut you'd never guess that they're edible, but when properly cooked the meat inside is delicious.

Pictured above are the raw chestnuts. My first attempt involved roasting them in a pan on the stove. They tasted OK, but a little bland. Obviously much better when I cooked them for my birthday dinner--roasted in the oven for a half hour, shelled and sliced and then pan-fried in butter and honey and brown sugar. Quite tasty.

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