Every winter chestnuts make their obligatory appearance here on the streets of New York. Small bags of roasted nuts warm the hands, but all too frequently not the soul. Chestnuts are a fickle beast -- to steal a line from a recent television commercial -- but you don’t need to be an expert chef to roast your own, and you certainly don’t need any special equipment!
Many of us associate the holidays with chestnuts, roasting over an open fire, as may be the case. The truth is the chestnut season starts in late October to early November but it really hits its peak just as the holidays roll around. You might see them in your grocer's produce section today, but they’re not going to be there for too long, at least not at their peak, so let’s roast up some chestnuts!
How to buy chestnuts
First you have to buy your chestnuts. Like many nuts, it’s hard to know what’s inside the shell. But there are a few pointers worth noting when buying chestnuts.
1) If the meat is rattling around in the shell the chestnut has dried or worse, it’s all moldy. If they rattle, pass them by.
2) Look for nuts that have shiny, clear, tight skins. As chestnuts age, you can see that their skins lose their bright cast and turn dull and cloudy.
3) The biggest issue with chestnuts is mold. If you see signs on the outside of a nut, it’s a good bet that the moist inside will look worse.
How to store chestnuts
Chestnuts gain sweetness as they dry out, but they can quickly become too dry to eat.
To store chestnuts for the short term, simply refrigerate them in your vegetable bin, which is designed to maintain higher humidity, in a paper bag or other ventilated container.
They should be very hard right out of storage. If you can, remove your chestnuts two to three days before you plan on cooking them, to allow them to dry out just a bit. If properly dried, they should give just a bit when you squeeze them (this indicates that some of the starch has been converted to sugar).
Even when your chestnuts have dried out sufficiently to make them attractive to eat they are still very water-rich. While cooking, steam will be generated in the chestnut. By scoring the shell -- usually cutting an X in the flat side of the shell but a simple slit will do -- you not only allow the steam to escape and prevent the meat from exploding, but you also create an easy way to extract your nutmeat.
Chestnuts are like eggs! It’s easiest to peel the nut when they are freshly cooked as it gets progressively harder as the nut cools. Once the chestnuts have sat for a while it can be impossible to remove the astringent pellicle (that’s the skin).
How to cook chestnuts
After scoring each chestnut, place in a single layer on a baking dish and bake at 350F for about 20-30 minutes, giving the tray a shake once or twice during the cooking process to allow for more even cooking. Allow the chestnuts to cool until you can handle them and then peel and enjoy!
For this you should buy a long handled chestnut roaster to prevent burning yourself. Score your chestnuts and place them in a single layer in the chestnut roasting pan. Hold the chestnut pan above the flames of your fire and keep the chestnuts moving. It takes about 15 minutes for the chestnuts to fully cook, but they’ll be well blackened by then, so be prepared to let them to that point. They’ll also be hella hot, so wait until they’ve cooled a bit before trying to peel them.
You can also roast chestnuts on your stovetop using either a chestnut roaster or a heavy cast-iron sauté pan. Score your chestnuts and place them in a single layer in the pan. Cook the chestnuts over medium-high heat; keep them moving by shaking the pan. It is tough to gauge how long they might take to cook since stovetops vary so much in output, but figure 15-25 minutes.
Boiling is a great way to cook chestnuts, particularly if you plan on reusing them as an ingredient in another dish. Not only do the chestnuts remain moist and evenly cooked, but the water helps soften the skins, making them easier to remove. Score your chestnuts and place them in a pot that can easily hold them. Cover with lightly salted water, bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. In about 20 minutes, the chestnuts are almost fully cooked and easy to peel – perfect for making marrons glacés. If you want fully cooked chestnuts, just simmer for an additional 5 minutes or so; another 5 minutes or so will give you softened chestnuts perfect for mashing.
The microwave is a surprisingly effective and easy way to cook chestnuts. Simply score your chestnuts and then place them in a microwave-proof container with a little water. Cover the container and microwave for 2 to 2.5 minutes. Personally, I don’t even bother with the water and just put a big handful of scored chestnuts into a kitchen towel and wrap it up before microwaving. I do get some overcooked bits that are a bit hard and chewy, but I like the deeper flavors of those bits anyway!
Chestnuts are like a wonderful starchy vegetable, sharing elements with potatoes, rutabagas and sweet potatoes. They are typically eaten alone or as part of a dessert -- thanks in part to the fame of the utterly delicious candied chestnuts known as maroons glacés -- but historically chestnuts were a starchy staple, frequently ground into a flour used as the original polenta.
Today chestnuts are finding their way into stuffings, mashes, and side dishes. I like a simple sauté of pancetta and mushrooms with some butter and sage atop fresh fettuccine. The sweet earthy flavors of the chestnuts are the perfect counterpoint for the smoky, salty pancetta!
Pasta, Pancetta, and Chestnuts
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta (Italian unsmoked cured bacon), finely diced -- to make this easier, have your supplier slice 1/4-inch slices for you
5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage
12 ounces roasted whole chestnuts, roughly chopped (about 1 lb raw, uncooked chestnuts)
12 ounces dried fettuccine
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 ounces finely grated grana padano
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat a 12-inch heavy sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and then the diced pancetta to the pan. As the pancetta begins to fry in the oil, stir it to allow for even cooking.
Once the pancetta is gently browned, add 3 tbsp of the sage and the chestnuts to the pan. Stir until the sage is fragrant, then remove the dish from heat.
Cook the pasta to your liking in a large pot of salted water.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain and reserve 2 cups of the cooking water.
Over medium-high heat, return one cup of pasta water to the pot in which you cooked the pasta and then add the chestnut mixture to the water, along with the butter and 2 ounces of the grated cheese.
To view the photos for this article, go to What's in Season: Chestnuts.