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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: It’s true -- water chestnuts don’t just come in a can.
Just to be clear, water chestnuts are not the same chestnuts you roast on an open fire: Those grow in a tree. Water chestnuts come from an aquatic plant native to China, and they aren’t nuts at all -- the part we eat is called a corm. Fresh water chestnuts can generally be found year-round in Asian markets, and when you find them, select rock-hard specimens with a slight sheen to them. Pick up a few more than you think you need, too -- even after choosing firm, bruise-free specimens, you might find bad spots when you peel them, so it pays to be prepared.
Keep them unpeeled in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. Diane Morgan advises against storing peeled water chestnuts covered in water -- she finds they taste waterlogged, and recommends waiting to peel them until right before using them. When it's time to peel them, channel your best apple-peeling skills; with a small knife, slice off the top and bottom, and then cut away the dark brown peel (2) in strips -- they should be bright white inside (1).
More: Another ingredient you should try fresh? Horseradish.
Make take-out favorites at home
Canned water chestnuts can taste like, well, can. Fresh water chestnuts are sweeter, nuttier, and retain more of their crunch after cooking -- they'll make your favorite take-out-style dish taste even better. Try fresh water chestnuts in a stir fry with spicy pork or savory greens. Use them in a filling for lettuce wraps or vegetarian egg rolls. Make orange chicken or Asian lemongrass kebabs on fresh sugarcane skewers.
Use them raw in a salad
When a question came up on the Hotline asking what to do with fresh water chestnuts, ALittleZaftig recommended julienning them with fresh lotus root, tossing them with some fresh cilantro, and dressing the salad with a blend of smashed lemongrass, a nut oil, and a light vinegar.
Improve a classic
Take your hors d'oeuvres up a notch and serve fresh water chestnuts wrapped in bacon with brown sugar and Dijon mustard -- so good they're genius. Add fresh water chestnuts to a homemade green bean casserole, and convert your relatives from their version where every ingredient comes out of a can. Chop up fresh water chestnuts and add them to your favorite stuffing recipe for a nice texture contrast, or try this pecan stuffing with rosemary, fennel and blue cheese.
Enjoy them for dessert
Fresh water chestnuts don't have to be relegated to savory dishes -- their slightly sweet flavor is perfect in sweet treats too. Try them in a fruit salad or in fruit fritters. Make a water chestnut cake, or get fancy and make this orange ginger dessert with toasted pine nuts and Thai basil.
How do you use fresh water chestnuts? Let us know in the comments!
Green bean casserole photo by Joseph De Leo, all other photos by James Ransom