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Water chestnuts

Why Eat It
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation


Why Eat It

Anyone who has eaten in a Chinese restaurant is probably familiar with water chestnuts: Their crisp white flesh has a mildly sweet flavor and a crunchy texture that is actually closer to apples than to any kind of nut. In their fresh form, they do look like chestnuts, but they are not nuts. When added to dishes, they contribute hardly any fat.

There are two distinct plants, unrelated to each other, that carry the name water chestnut; the one we eat is often referred to as the Chinese water chestnut (its botanical name is Eleocharis dulcis). Some sources classify this vegetable as a tuber, but it is technically a corm--the swollen tip of an underground stem that, like a tuber, stores carbohydrates for the plant's growth. The water chestnut grows underwater in mud. It has brown or black scalelike leaves and closely resembles a small, muddy tulip bulb.

Nearly all of the water chestnuts marketed in the United States come in canned form, so they are most commonly seen only after their outer wrapping has been removed. Although fresh ones need to be peeled and cleaned, they are tastier than canned chestnuts and hold up especially well under cooking, gaining in sweetness while losing none of their crunch.

Availability

Fresh water chestnuts are sold primarily in Asian food markets. Though available year round, they are most plentiful from early summer through late fall. The majority are imported from China or Japan, but they have recently been cultivated in the southeastern United States.

Shopping

Fresh water chestnuts look sooty (they should not have been washed), but should be smooth, except for a few leaf scales. In addition, they should be rock hard and completely free of soft spots.

Storage

Keep water chestnuts cool, or they will sprout. Store them, unwashed and unpeeled, in a loosely closed paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper. Or, refrigerate them, unwashed and unpeeled, in a loosely covered bowl. If you've peeled more than you need, place peeled water chestnuts in a bowl of cold water and refrigerate. Change the water every 24 hours, and use within two days. Unpeeled water chestnuts will keep up to two weeks.

Preparation

Fresh water chestnuts can be used raw or cooked in recipes.

Wash the chestnuts and scrub them with a vegetable brush. Peel them with a sharp paring knife and cut out any bruises. To prevent discoloration, place each water chestnut in cold water as it is peeled. If any of the chestnuts seem decayed, sniff them: A pronounced sour smell means they should be discarded. Halve, quarter, slice, julienne or finely chop before cooking.

Blanching: Blanching canned water chestnuts for about 15 seconds will freshen their flavor. After blanching, drain them and cool in ice water.

Boiling: Drop the water chestnuts into a large pot of boiling water. Return the water to a boil and cook until crisp-tender. If not serving immediately, drain the water chestnuts and cool in a bowl of ice water. Cooking time: five to 10 minutes.

Steaming: Place the water chestnuts in a steamer basket and cook over boiling water. Cooking time: eight to 15 minutes.

Stir-frying: Whether using fresh or canned water chestnuts, stir-fry with other ingredients just until heated through. (If they are cooked longer, they will lose their refreshing crispness and turn mushy.)

If fresh water chestnuts are not available, try substituting jicama, it is similar in texture, although not as sweet as a water chestnut.


Date Published: 04/21/2005
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