Fresh Chestnuts – Roasting them; Peeling them; Putting them in the Stuffing
Ok, It’s finally time for chestnuts, an autumn/early winter thrill that’s one of the last truly seasonal crops still standing. If you’re anything like me, you’re just about jumping up and down with glee right there in the produce section. But if you’re like I used to be, your joy is tempered by the knowledge that they’re a royal pain to prepare.
They needn’t be, as it turns out. I now eat more than is probably wise, having discovered a couple of tricks that lessen the pain considerably. I still haven’t found an easy way to go from raw in the shell to skinless roasted, but with these methods it’s easy enough to make me glad they’re low-fat.
(The skinny on dried chestnuts is here.)
PREPARING FRESH CHESTNUTS
The first rule is to buy more than you need. All bulk chestnuts, no matter how fancy, will include some that are moldy or wormy and in my experience no amount of in-store inspection is enough to guarantee they will all be sound. Keep them cold until needed; they won’t spoil at room temperature but they will start drying out.
The next step is the first royal pain part: each chestnut shell must be cut through, aka scored, on the flat side. This keeps the nut from exploding in the oven and, because the shell contracts, provides a place to start peeling from. Classic way of doing it is to use a small, very sharp knife to cut an X.
Chestnuts being hard, small and round, X-cutting was fraught with hazard for the first roughly 40 years of my chestnut-roasting life. But then I met the chestnutter, which helped enormously, and then I figured out – duh! – that you can simply soak the tough shells into knife-receptive tenderness.
You put a chestnut in the hopper, close lid one, then close lid two – in theory just firmly enough to score the shell without damaging the nut..
Works like a charm – if you have strong hands. That first view isn’t a distortion. For reasons best known to themselves the manufacturers have made the top handle shorter than the others, so it can be difficult to get a good grip.
Plus you’ve got to give it a pretty firm squeeze but not so firm a squeeze you drive the cutter deep into the flesh of the nut. But all that said it does do the job, quickly and reliably. Available from Fante’s,* among others.
Simplicity itself. Put the chestnuts in a deep, heatproof bowl. Pour on enough boiling water to cover generously and let them sit for an hour or two. Score them one at a time, leaving the others in the water until wanted. ( Especially in the beginning of the season when the nuts are fresh and (for chestnuts) juicy, it’s best to let them dry out again a bit after scoring,before you put them in the oven. Exposed inner membrane has to dry to brittleness as they roast.)
In my experience the open fire is more a romantic fantasy than a good idea. There’s a reason street vendors are always surrounded by an acrid effluvium of incinerated shell, and having a chestnut roasting pan – also available at Fante’s – doesn’t really help.
But if you’re determined to try and the “open fire” is an actual fire, not the flame on the top of the stove, you’ll need a pan with a very long handle. They sell ‘em at Spitjack – where, please be warned, I have never shopped. Watch out for ebay, where I just saw several antique chestnut roasters with oh please good grief wooden handles.
We do roast chestnuts on top of the woodstove (covered by an overturned pan) for social eating, but in the oven is the way to go if you need more than a few. One layer in a jellyroll pan at 375 for about 15 minutes. Shake the pan once or twice to turn them. Many recipes say to oil the pan but for the life of me I can’t think why – it seems very unlikely to boost heat transfer and it’s not as if they’d stick.
Reader Greenpa (see comments) sent along this link to a chestnut peeling video that offers a vast improvement over X-cutting when what you need – or can use well enough – is halved semi- raw peeled nuts. Having now tried it I can offer the following refinements: The nuts are parboiled whole, then halved, and about 2 minutes at a low bubble seems to do the job; I tried 5 minutes first and it was too long. Halving across the equator works better than scar-to-tip. Also, it’s easiest to apply the pliers at an angle.
Whether you start with parboiled peeled or X’d whole; boiling is a misnomer. Whole: Start them in cold water to cover generously, bring it just to the boil, then turn the heat to simmer and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on size and freshness. It’s best to err on the side of undercooking so they don’t crumble when you peel them. Parboiled: Simmer gently for about 5 minutes or use directly in stew, stir-fry or whatever. Being both skinned and halved, they’re ready to absorb the flavor of whatever they’re cooked in
The other half of the royal pain, because whether the chestnut is roasted or boiled, peeling presents the same challenge. There is no getting around the fact that the hotter the chestnut, the easier it is to remove the disagreeable inner skin. It helps to score generously before cooking.
Work with a few at a time, leaving the remainder in the turned-off oven or pot of water. If you hold the nut in a tea towel and use only one hand to work on peel removal, finger burning can be kept to a minimum. This is not a good job for men. Why they’re more sensitive to the heat I don’t know. I only know it’s true and not a cover for weaseling out of being helpful. (It isn’t true for chefs; they have to have abesestos fingers.)
Social Note: According to reports I’ve been unable to verify, people in the rural Midwest and upper South used to employ roasting chestnuts for a kissing game. Cut only a small vent hole in the concave side of each nut and place them in the fire, keeping track of whose is whose. The person whose chestnut pops first gets to kiss whoever they want. Best thing to be doing with your mouth if that’s what you did to your chestnut (see “roasting,” above).
Oh, the stuffing. Don’t be stingy.
*Disclaimer: The folks who own Fante’s are friends. There are many reasons to like them. One of the reasons is that they run a really terrific cookware store.