When I was growing up, every couple of weeks in the winter my mom used to roast chestnuts in our oven. They were the most delicious, comforting little nuggets of sweet (but not cloyingly so) goodness, and they really brightened up a California winter. As I find myself having to explain repeatedly, Berkeley winters can get cold, and roasted chestnuts are appropriate there in a way they wouldn’t be in, say, Los Angeles. Still, nowhere is more appropriate for roasted chestnuts than the Northeast, so when I saw a bin of fresh chestnuts at the co-op, I had to scoop some up.
Most people have never, I imagine, eaten fresh chestnuts (or chestnuts at all?). Those of you who have probably got them from a street vendor in New York City. So, for you chestnut novices, let me say: fresh chestnuts really bite the hand that wants to eat them. It’s a paradox: they are so so good (a very meaty nut, a little crumbly, sweet in a honey-tasting way), but they are so hard to peel. Not hard to roast, mind you, but hard to peel. Chestnuts have both a hard outer shell and a thinner bark-like skin, both of which you need to remove (you can eat a little bit of the skin, but it is bitter and tannic tasting, and will greatly diminish the chestnut experience). You do this by cutting an X into the chestnut before you roast it, so that during roasting the shell starts to peel away from the nut. Then you just get your thumbs in there and finish the job (your thumbs will be very sore after).
I have noticed, though, that the street vendors’ chestnuts are nowhere near as hard to peel as the ones my mom makes. Why is that? Well, I have two theories: One, they use fresher chestnuts (the ones that are hardest to peel often end up bad in the middle and you have to throw them out anyway, only twisting the knife). Two, I think they make their X’s bigger than my dear mother ever did, allowing the shell/peel on their chestnuts to peel back further during roasting.
I failed on the first account — I let my cheestnuts sit out on the counter for at least a week before I roasted them. I did, however, make some mighty big x’s in the shell first. And it worked! Kind of. A lot of the chestnuts were moldy from my first error. But the ones that were good were really good, and pretty easy to peel, actually. So try roasting your own, before winter disappears. Get them fresh, roast them immediately, save your thumbs.
– as many chestnuts as you think you have the stamina to score and then peel
1. Preheat oven to 425ºF.
2. Rinse chestnuts in cold water, wipe dry (to get rid of any dust that’s stuck to their surface).
3. Lay a chestnut down on its flat side (there should be a noticeably flat and noticeably curved side). Using a sharp paring knife (a small knife, in other words — you don’t want to use a big chef’s knife for this), cut a good size X in the curved side — it should go through the peel and can also go through the skin into the meat, and it can stretch from one side of the chestnut to the other, even, if you have the energy to cut that far. Repeat with all chestnuts. Warning: this can be a little dangerous and slippery. I managed fine, but I read a tip online to lay the chestnuts on a clean dishtowel if you want some friction to stabilize them during the prep.
4. Place chestnuts, cut side up, on a baking pan or tray (I used our cast-iron pan).
5. Roast for 15-25 minutes, checking carefully after about 15 minutes to make sure chestnuts don’t overcook (they will get really hard). The outer shell should have peeled back somewhat — see picture at top.
6. Peel away. If your chestnut looks at all moldy (blue/gray) or just rotton (black) on the outside or middle (or if it just disintigrates into a powder when you try to peel it), discard it. You are bound ot get a few bad chestnuts in the bunch.