|Chestnuts - how to roast, boil, and shell them, and what to do with them after|
Growing up, I always thought of chestnuts as a bit of a luxury. Every year my step dad would take on the job of roasting and peeling them to add to the Thanksgiving stuffing, and every year I would fill my plate at least ninety percent full of said stuffing, and eat all the chestnuts out of it I could find. They were a small part of our holidays, but one of my favorites.
Because chestnuts are so scarce on the shelves, and pricey to boot, it never made sense to me why they're depicted as such an iconic American treat. They're common throughout Europe and Asia, sold whole, or candied, or pureed, or even freshly roasted from street vendors... but here in the States, you're lucky to find them in a jar. Why?
After a little research (read, wikipedia), I discovered that chestnuts trees were once a common appearance in the US, up until about a century ago when they were mostly wiped out by a fungus called blight. With such huge devastation to the crops, it's taken this long for trees to be re-planted, and at very high cost to the growers. In the meantime, the chestnuts available here are mostly imported, hence the high price and availability.
Okay, so now that we have some whole, raw chestnuts... what do we do with them?
|The Chestnut Life Cycle - not including the part where I devour them!|
There are a couple popular ways to prepare chestnuts - roasting, and boiling. Neither are very difficult to do, but they do require a little time and effort. Here's how:
Roasting chestnuts in the oven (or over hot coals, if you prefer) is probably the most common method, and definitely the most flavorful. The nuts become lightly browned and aromatic, and can be eaten warm from the oven, tossed with olive oil and salt, or used in a recipe. For 1 lb. of shelled chestnuts, start with at least 1.5 lbs. raw. There will undoubtedly be some bad ones in the bunch, so try to factor that in.
First, using a sharp knife, score an X on the flat side of each chestnut. This will make shelling easier, and also let steam escape while the nuts roast. Do not skip this step, or the chestnuts may explode like little grenades in your oven! Be sure to cut all the way through the shell, and only slightly into the meat of the nut. There's a tool called a chestnut knife specifically designed for this, but a paring knife works fine - just be careful not to slip and cut yourself!
Arrange the nuts cut-side up on a rimmed baking sheet, and roast at 425f. for about 20 minutes, or until the shells have begun to open and peel back where they were cut. Some of them may not open up, and that's okay... there are always a few duds, and the nut inside is probably bad. Discard those.
Once all the chestnuts are peeled, they're ready to be eaten or used in a recipe. Or, they can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up a few days.
Boiling is a little faster than roasting, and makes the chestnuts quite a bit softer and easier to peel. The flavor is a little more mild compared to roasting, but still sweet and perfect for most applications.
Just as before, start by scoring an X on the flat side of each nut. While you do this, bring a pot of water to a boil.
Add the chestnuts to the water, and let boil for 10-15 minutes, or until the shells have begun to peel back and open. Turn off the heat.
Using a slotted spoon or the like, transfer 4-5 chestnuts to a clean dish towel. Bundle the towel around the nuts to keep the heat in, and use the towel to help peel back the shells and rub off the inner skins. Repeat with another batch of nuts hot from the water until all of the nuts are shelled. You may want to use an older, rattier towel for this, as the mahogany colored shells may leave some stains.
What to do with them:
Chestnuts are great for snacking on, adding to salads, or mixing into stuffing with cranberries or apples. You can braise them with meat, or saute with garlic and vegetables. They can be used to make a wonderful winter soup, or chopped and stirred into a warm risotto... but the possibilities don't stop there.
These naturally sweet nuts are also great in desserts. Like almonds or hazelnuts, chestnuts are perfect paired with chocolate, baked into cakes, or whipped into a decadent mousse.
In Europe it isn't uncommon to find candied chestnuts (marrons glacés), chestnut puree, chestnut syrup, and chestnut flour. Around here, there are generally only two ways to get our hands on products like this - the internet, or our own kitchens.
Chestnut puree is simply boiled chestnuts (because they're softer than roasted) that have been blended with just enough water or cream to make a smooth paste. Some canned varieties are sweetened, others not - sugar, honey, or syrup can be added to taste.
Chestnut flour is great for baking, especially for those with an intolerance for gluten. It can be made by drying roasted and peeled chestnuts at a very low temperature, or in a dehydrator, and then grinding them as finely as possible. Because of the time and effort, and how expensive chestnuts are to begin with, I've found it is significantly more economical to buy chestnut flour online.
Candied Chestnuts (aka, Marrons Glacés, or Marrons Confits)
Candied chestnuts are roasted or boiled chestnuts that have then been cooked repeatedly in a bath of syrup. Some varieties are sold dried like candy (glacés), and others in they're own syrup (confits).
To make your own candied chestnuts, start with 1 lb. of boiled or roasted chestnuts, with the shell and inner skin removed. In a pot, combine 1 lb. granulated sugar, 1 1/4 cups water, and 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, for about five minutes or until the sugar has dissolved. Add the chestnuts, and continue to stir until the mixture returns to a boil. Cook for 10-12 minutes, then pour the chestnuts and syrup into a heatproof container and loosely cover. Let sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours, then pour everything back into the pot and repeat the process. Do this another 1-2 times, or until the chestnuts have absorbed all of the syrup, and then spread the nuts on a wire rack to dry overnight. Or, repeat the process only once and store the chestnuts in jar with the syrup.
Now that I've expanded my chestnut knowledge, I'm looking forward to experimenting with recipes. As I mentioned before, I'm only really familiar with chestnuts in stuffing, so branching out into new applications for them is going to be a real treat.
What are your favorite ways to use chestnuts? Do you have any fond memories of them as a child, or any family traditions around them? Please tell - I appreciate any ideas and would love to hear your stories!
Update: for a couple of chestnut-y recipes, check out my posts on Creamy Chestnut Soup (vegan), or Candied Chestnut Cake (gluten-free)