Warm fresh chestnuts are soft, fleshy, sensuous, creamy, and sweet. They are best served nekked with a glass of port or a mug of hot glögg and, on the bearskin rug, in front of the fireplace, with Nat King Cole in the background.
For a sinful treat, dip them in melted butter and sprinkle a little salt on them. Chestnuts are also fine in cooking. They make great soups, stews, stuffings, candies, and desserts.
Chestnuts are grown on trees, harvested in September and October, and they keep a few weeks if refrigerated. Problem is, most grocers do not refrigerate them. So they get moldy, especially in December and beyond. Problem is, you usually cannot see the mold until you peel them. If you buy chestnuts in late December or January, you run the risk of 1/3 or more being inedible. If you can, toss them in a bucket of water before you buy. Good nuts will usually sink, and moldy ones will usually float. Problem is you can’t very well do this in a store. One thing you can do is select those that are not cracked. Cracked nuts won’t get moldy, but they will get hard as rocks.
If the nuts are very fresh, you need to only prepare exactly what you need. If they are getting a bit old, or if your grocer has not kept them chilled, prepare about 50% more knowing that several will be moldy. Do not eat moldy nuts.
The solution is to buy chestnuts early in the season and refrigerate them. Otherwise, buy them frozen or dried. If you buy them dried you need to rehydrate them by soaking in water. Do not use chestnuts in brandy or syrup in this recipe.
Do this first
There are several ways to prepare chestnuts. All methods start by rinsing and scoring them. Rinsing gets off any dirt and residue that can get on your hands when you peel and eat. It also will moisten and soften the shell slightly. Then sit them on a counter flat side down, and make a long cut or an X in the shell on the round side by placing a serrated knife on the shell and drawing it towards you. This is necessary so they don’t explode from steam buildup. You can then choose your cooking method from those below. I prefer roasting, grilling, or broiling for the best flavor. Microwaving is fastest. Boil them if they are old and hard.
Roasting chestnuts over an open fire. Rinse and score the shells, then put the nuts in a frying pan flat side down. If you have a fireplace or campfire going, move things around so there is a bed of glowing coals upon which the pan can rest. Place the pan on the coals for about 5 minutes. With a potholder remove the pan, roll the nuts over, and back they go for another 5 minutes or so. The exact time will depend on how hot things are.
Grilling chestnuts. Rinse and score the shells. Fire up your grill in a 2-zone setup. Get the direct zone to medium high. Put the nuts on the grates on the direct side cut side down and close the lid. Roast until the shell peels back and begins to scorch and the meat starts to turn golden, perhaps 10 minutes. If they burn before they are done, move them to the indirect side.
Broiling chestnuts in an oven. This is the indoor method I use most often. Rinse and score the shells. Turn the oven on broil and put a rack on the highest level. Put the nuts in a pan cut side up on the top rack. Cook for about 10 minutes, depending on how close they are to the heat, until the shell curls and scorches and the meat begins to turn golden. Don’t let the meat burn.
Roasting chestnuts in the oven. Rinse and score the shells. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Roast on a center shelf until the meats are tender and easily pierced by a knife or toothpick, about 25-30 minutes.
Boiling chestnuts. Rinse and score the shells. Start a pot of water boiling. Drop in the nuts and boil for about 15 minutes. Boiled chestnuts can be hard to peel.
Steaming chestnuts. Rinse and score the shells. Start the steamer and after the water is boiling put the nuts in the steamer compartment. Steam for 15 minutes. They come out nice and soft and moist but they they are a bit harder to peel, and the flavor is not as rich as the dry heat methods.
Microwaving chestnuts. Rinse and score the shells. Set your microwave on 100% power, place them on a plate and nuke them for a measly 1 minute or until tender. The exact time may vary from microwave to microwave and depending on how many nuts you are cooking.
Peeling and serving
Chestnuts are easiest to peel when they are warm. As soon as you can handle them, peel off the shell and the papery cuticle that is underneath. Some of this skin may get wedged into the cracks, and if necessary you may have to break the nutmeat in half to pull it out. A toothpick helps. Discard any if there are black spots after you peel them. The black is likely mold.
I like serving warm chestnuts with a hot drink, especially glögg, hot buttered rum, or herb tea. They also go well with port, sherry, and other fortified wines as well as a good brandy such as Cognac.
Raw chestnuts are harvested in spiny pods, shown above in the Campo di Fiori market in Rome.
They are roasted and sold by street vendors in Rome and around the world.