A Season for Chestnuts
Published by Zester Daily on December 21, 2010
up in a blustery steel town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, I had more
than my fair share of days with Jack Frost nipping at my nose. But
chestnuts roasting on an open fire? I just assumed that these were
fanciful treats dreamed up by Nat King Cole, along with Mel Tormé and
Bob Wells, the writers of "The Christmas Song."
A winter trip to Paris dispelled that notion. No matter where I turned,
I spied men bundled in coats and scarves cooking shiny, plum-sized,
aromatic nuts over open fires. Roasting sweet, earthy chestnuts, I
learned, happened far more in Europe than in it did my hometown.
Chestnuts make their way from western Asia
Although long associated with Europe, chestnuts originated in western
Asia. After becoming smitten with these soft, starchy nuts, ancient
Greeks transported chestnut trees from Asia Minor to their homeland.
They introduced chestnuts to the Romans, who, by 37 B.C., cultivated
The Romans not only mastered growing but also cooking chestnuts. They
ground the nuts into flour and meal and made the first polenta and flat
cakes known as necci from them. They cooked them whole with lentils, as
described in the fifth century Roman cookbook "Apicius," and candied
and ate them as sweets.
They took chestnut trees to Britain and to the region known as Gaul,
where I first encountered them. Lower in fat and higher in
carbohydrates than other nuts, chestnuts became an important source of
food for the rich and poor. No wonder. They go well with a variety of
foods, including apples, Brussels sprouts, chocolate, game, mushrooms
and onions, and partner nicely with such diverse seasonings as fennel
seeds, pepper, salt, brown sugar and vanilla.
Chestnuts have since shifted their role from a staple to a luxury food.
This change occurred in North America as well as in Europe. Until an
early 20th century tree fungus decimated its population and transformed
it into a gourmet item, a species of chestnuts had also thrived in
In spite of chestnuts' scarcity, I still find them in grocery stores.
What I see, though, often hails from Italy or China, two countries less
affected by the blight. These nuts come in several forms including
roasted, dried, canned in brine, frozen, ground into flour, candied or
pureed. From October to March, I can track down fresh ones at farmers
Chestnuts: what to look for, how to prepare, where to store
When selecting fresh chestnuts, I look for large, glossy shells. If
allowed, I open a few to see if the nuts look plump and meaty inside. I
skip those that have green mold or hard, dark spots.
Back at home, my bounty on the kitchen counter, I set out to clean and
cook the nuts. I would never eat them raw. Uncooked chestnuts taste
bitter and are rather unpalatable.
Using a sharp paring knife, I score the flat side of each with an "X."
This helps the nuts to open when roasting and makes them easier to
peel. It also stops them from exploding as they cook.
If roasting the chestnuts, I preheat my oven to 400 F and place the
scored nuts on a shallow baking pan. Depending on whether I want to
peel or to cook them completely, I roast them for between 15 and 40
minutes, shaking the pan periodically so that they cook evenly.
If boiling to remove the shells, I bring a stockpot filled with lightly
salted water to a boil and drop in the nuts. I then boil them for about
five minutes before removing the pan from the heat. Scooping out a few
nuts at a time, I peel off the shells and papery skins.
As roasted or boiled nuts are quite hot, I usually don heat resistant
gloves to peel them. The warmer the chestnuts are, the easier it is to
remove the shells and skins.
On wintry evenings when I want to re-create "The Christmas Song" mood,
I place my chestnuts in a perforated steel chestnut-roasting pan that I
picked up at a flea market. With low flames dancing in my fireplace I
insert and then shake the pan over the fire for 15 minutes. Voila!
Chestnuts roasted over an open fire.
Once I've shelled and cooked them, I can feature chestnuts in soups or
stews, add them to stuffings or turn them into purees. They also go
well in soufflés, cakes, pastries and ice creams.
If I don't want to work with them right away, I place the shelled nuts
in a covered container in the refrigerator. They will keep for up to
one week that way. Unshelled nuts should be stored in a cool, dry place.
Roasted Garlic, Chestnuts and Brussels Sprouts
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup roasted chestnuts, roughly chopped
2 pounds fresh or frozen Brussels sprouts, halved from top to bottom
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
2. Place the garlic, chestnuts, Brussels sprouts, olive
oil, salt and pepper in a large baking dish. Toss the ingredients
together, spread them in a single layer and bake until tender, about 25
minutes. Serve immediately.
© 2010, Kathy Hunt.