It’s that time of year again. The cooler weather is rolling in, the days are shorter, and the holidays are approaching faster than we all think. While chestnuts are something you usually think of roasting over an open fire (Thanks Bing Crosby), they’re actually available from the start of fall on! They’re sweet, soft, slightly dry and have a pleasant tannin quality that makes them warm you inside and out.
Walking around New York City in the winter with my mom and dad, I remember there being chestnut vendors on almost every street corner. The smell of freshly roasted chestnuts wafting down the street always drew me right to them. You get a small paper bag, open it and smell the rich, sweet aroma. They’re plump, juicy and luscious.
If you’ve ever tried to roast them at home, they’re just not quite as good as the vendor chestnuts. They end up dryer, some crumble, and others just won’t peel. The reason is a little secret of the vendors…steam!
If you’re not sure where to find chestnuts and your local grocery store is charging through the nose for them, your best bet is to ask the locals. While the trees are big and beautiful, most people don’t want to spend the time picking up and shelling the chestnuts themselves. More often than not, these people are more than happy to let you clean up their lawn. If not for free, for only a few bucks for as many as you want.
To start, you need to make an incision into the rounded side of the chestnut. Cut almost the whole way around in one slit. I’m going to do both and show you which ones seem to peel easier.
Once you cut them all, take a pot and boil about a gallon of water and a ¼ C of salt.
Add the chestnuts and let them soak for 10 minutes. This will cause them to soak up some water to cause the steam needed.
Drain the chestnuts and dry them with a towel.
Depending on how many chestnuts you’re doing, split them up amongst several pieces of foil with the slit facing up. Add some sort of fat, salt and herbs if you wish. Bacon fat or butter is perfect. Then bunch them up into packages, leaving a whole for the steam to escape. Roast at 350 for 25-30 minutes, or until the incision in the shell starts to separate and the meats are starting to brown.
Working one parcel at a time, peel off the shell and the skin at the incision. (A paring knife sometimes makes this job easier). Do this as soon as they are cool enough to handle; the shells are harder to peel when cold. Don’t open up a parcel until you are ready to peel the chestnuts.
Eat them, use them in stuffings or sauces, grate them over a salad. This seasonal delicacy is one of the things I always look forward to the most this time of year.