This is the third in a series of "catchup" posts. xo
Chestnuts! For me, like many Americans, they are woven into the fabric of fall and winter holidays. In a way, we all grew up with chestnuts, or at least the idea of them. Each year when the weather turns cold, we know we'll hear Nat King Cole famously crooning about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. We'll be singing the songs we love to sing, at the fireplace as we watch the chestnuts pop. Pop! Pop! Pop! If we find ourselves in one of New York's five boroughs (or any number of European cities) around the holidays, we might be lucky enough to snag a cone of freshly roasted chestnuts, hot from the corner vendor.
And if we're fans of those gorgeous holiday magazines - aren't we all? - we'll be reading about chestnuts and dreaming of ways to cook with them. I'd bet money that every single November issue of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine included at least one chestnut recipe. It's a tradition that I sorely miss.
Surprising, then, that until a few weeks ago I had never tasted a chestnut. I had never even seen a chestnut, except in photographs or in a can. So you can imagine how thrilled I was, while out playing with my kids, to stumble across a small stand of chestnut trees in a park near my house. A few days later, armed with an empty bag and my dog, I set out to forage some chestnuts. It was such a beautiful fall day, and I was so excited about my find, that I was inspired to pen a poem:
Okay, so I'm not a poet (and I know it). Back to the chestnut foraging. The trees were huge, with lovely patterns in the bark that looked more like seashells than wood.
A closer look revealed some tiny critters who were also benefitting from the tree's bounty.
All around, the chestnuts were bursting forth from their spiny cupules, while hundreds more lay hidden in the grass below, like so many mahogany Easter eggs.
I may have gotten a little carried away...
Aren't they pretty? But here's the thing.
These big, beautiful chestnuts were... fakes. Yep. I had broken a major rule of foraging: always confirm before you pick or eat. Luckily, I researched chestnuts as soon as I arrived home (before we cooked or ate any), only to find that my bounty of pretty chestnuts was actually just a bag full of pretty "conkers," or "horse chestnuts." My faux chestnuts were also... inedible. Slightly poisonous, in fact. Bummer, huh? Oh well, it was still a fun way to spend an hour.
So I threw away the conkers and opted for a less adventurous - but far more safe - foraging option: my local Asian grocery store. There, I found an ample supply of fresh California chestnuts for only $3 a pound. It was almost as thrilling as finding my first chestnut conker tree. Almost.
After bringing my chestnuts home from the store, I had two choices for cooking them: boiling or roasting. I tried boiling first, but I was dissatisfied with the taste and texture of the boiled chestnuts. So I took the rest of the bag and roasted them. The process seemed simple enough. First, cut an "X" in each chestnut - easy. Next, pop in the oven for a while - easy. Once the chestnuts have roasted, it's time to peel. Easy? Not so much.
Chestnuts have two outer layers (shell and skin), and the nut. If you roast chestnuts at home, you'll likely find as I did: some of the shells and skins will pop right off, leaving a whole, round nut behind.
With others, you'll peel the shell fairly quickly, wondering as you do so why everyone makes such a big deal out of this chestnut roasting gig. It's so easy!
Then you'll realize that the skin on some of the chestnuts has worked its way deep into all those lovely cracks and crevices, dividing your round nut into several distinctly misshapened puzzle pieces. Not so easy, after all.
Still others will be lost from the get-go. The shell will remain stubbornly unyielding, the skins will be super-glued to the nut. You may as well just throw in the towel on those chestnuts, since you'll quickly discover you have no chance of getting out anything but a pile of crumbs.
Patience, my friends. In the end, you will likely end up with a good amount of chestnut pieces, perfectly fine for munching or for incorporating into cookies. But your patience was also be rewarded - as mine was - with a couple dozen beautiful, whole chestnuts.
I baked some of my chestnuts with pearl onions, Brussels sprouts, apples, kumquats and rosemary for a savory-sweet side dish at our Thanksgiving dinner. With the rest, I attempted marrons glacés, a five-day-long project. (Don't ask me why; I have no reasonable explanation for my cooking obsessions.)
Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook (1989)
Although I originally photographed and wrote this back in October/November, chestnuts are still in season - in February! I was at the farmer's market last weekend, where they were selling for $2.00-$5.00 per pound. Get 'em while you still can.
Use organic whenever possible.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Cut an X in the flat side of the shells, and place chestnuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until tender and the shells have curled away from the nut, 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the chestnuts. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Chestnuts peel more easily when warm.
Enjoy out of hand or add to the recipe of your choice.