Time to chestnut up

Raw chestnutsBack when I was a reporter, I wrote about all kinds of things I’d never done. Arresting people as part of a narcotics jump-out squad. Marching in a Christmas parade. Dealing with the Maryland welfare system.

But I almost never write about things I haven’t eaten.

A couple of months ago, armed with an assignment, I began doing the research on Iowa-grown chestnuts. I grew up wondering what a chestnut roasted over an open fire really tasted like—after all, Bing Crosby made them sound delicious—but when I asked my parents, they told me chestnuts were pretty disappointing. Not worth the effort. Not worth the lyric.

Not so, said the chestnut growers I talked to for my recent article in Edible Iowa River Valley. In fact, it turns out that the reason most Americans hate chestnuts is because the nut is perishable, and the ones usually found in stores and at street vendors in major cities around Thanksgiving and Christmas are low-quality product shipped in from Italy without proper preservation. The song doesn’t say “Moldy chestnuts roasted over an open fire,” after all.

It was time to nut up.

After my article came out, I bought some of the locally-produced chestnuts at the Co-op and put them in the refrigerator. That’s what the producers told me to do, after all. And then I left them there for a couple of weeks because I had not officially figured out what to do with them.

“I think you can just roast them in the oven,” The Mint Killer told me. “Word is you just make a cut in their shells and they open right up.”

Knifes and nut shells. In my experience, that was a no-win situation, but I figured I’d give it a try.

To my surprise, the knife sliced right into the shell. It’s softer than you might imagine, Cross-cut chestnutsalthough I recommend going in knife-tip first so you don’t skitter the knife off the surface into your finger.

The traditional cut is a cross-hatch, but I read somewhere (don’t ask me where…I’ll probably never find it again…) that it was just fine to make a single cut across the flat side of the nut. I decided to try both options just to see what would happen, X marks the chestnutand it turns out both options work just as well. Either way, the nuts open right up when roasting.

As I was interviewing for the article, I learned that all the chestnut growers like to eat the nuts raw. They cure them first, letting the nuts’ starches turn into sugars, but then they described them as sweet and delicious. As I sliced, I decided to give a few a try in the raw, and I can report the growers weren’t kidding—the nuts were tasty in their uncooked state.

But once roasted, the nuts popped almost unaided out of their shells and they were sublime. They were slightly sweet, slightly nutty, and definitely worth singing about.

Roasted chestnutsRoasted chestnuts

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut an x-shaped or single-line slice in the flat side of each nut’s shell, and roast them for 15 to 20 minutes. Shake the pan at least once midway through roasting. As soon as the nuts are cool enough to touch, serve them up, or peel them and reserve the roasted nuts for use in other recipes. The roasted nuts can also be peeled and frozen for up to six months.

This is my contribution to this week’s edition of Weekend Herb Blogging, which will be hosted this week by Vanessa at What Geeks Eat. Stop by later in the weekend for the full round-up!


20 Responses to “Time to chestnut up”

  1. 1 gina November 17, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    thank you so much for clearing up the whole chestnut mystery! I have always wondered what they were like. Maybe I’ll give them a try!

  2. 2 Kalyn November 18, 2007 at 12:20 am

    Hooray! I mentioned on a blog that I hadn’t ever tasted them and the lovely and generous Simona sent me some. I was planning to cook them this weekend and wasn’t quite sure how it’s done. Thanks for the info, can’t wait to try them.

  3. 3 cole November 18, 2007 at 7:45 am

    We were in London, in early December and in front of Harrods there were carts selling roasted chestnuts. they smelled amazing and so we thought, heck, lets get some. Really good. Better than I thought. Different. Softer, and sweeter than I thought. It was a wood fire pit type of cart and the smell up and down the street was so yummy.

    I love that you did it at home. You are a food adventurist and I love that about you Genie.


  4. 4 Lydia November 18, 2007 at 7:57 am

    Roasted chestnuts were also sold from carts on the streets of New York when I was growing up, and the smell was so distinctive that you’d know from blocks away when you were getting near a cart. I’ve roasted them in my living room fireplace, too. We always do it by cutting an “x” in the bottom, but now I’ll try slicing right across the middle — it looks so much easier!

  5. 5 steven November 18, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Count me in as a chestnut vendor fan. The smell of chestnuts roasting over a wood fire is irresistible. For what it’s worth the vendors in Rome cut straight across.

  6. 6 Heather November 18, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    I always wondered how they tasted too. I’ll have to keep an eye out for “good” chestnuts and give this a shot.

  7. 7 anniebetty November 18, 2007 at 2:00 pm

    The vendors in Paris cut straight across, too. I’ve used the x myself, because I like the way the shell curls up when they roast. Fun stuff!

  8. 8 Laurie November 19, 2007 at 1:25 am

    What an educational post, thank you. I’m another one who has only had them over an open fire, from street vendors and in our living room. Sounds like I need to expand my horizons and experiment a little. Thanks again!

  9. 9 Katie November 19, 2007 at 7:51 am

    I love chestnuts and gathered a big sackful on one of our bike rides back in October…
    But they are best eaten out of a paper cone from a street chestnut vendor whilst wandering the streets of a Christman market in Austria or Germany in the snow…Just so you know…

  10. 10 reddnas1 November 19, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    I had chestnuts once in high school. The neighbors across the street from my parents’ house were from the east coast, and they made them for a Christmas party. They were very good, and we ate them with hot buttered rum.


  11. 11 inadvertentgardener November 19, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Gina, I definitely recommend it, as long as you can get the good stuff!

    Kalyn, you’ll have to let me know how it goes — I hope you enjoy them!

    Cole, they’re so surprising, aren’t they? Love your story of when you tried them.

    Lydia, when I was just in NYC, I kept my eye out for some, but didn’t see any. The middle slice is definitely easier, but the x is a little more, I don’t know, cool in the presentation?

    Steven, good to know re: the Italians.

    Heather, I definitely recommend watching for them.

    AB, I like that curly-shell action, too!

    Laurie, ooh…cooking them over an open fire at home would be fun!

    Katie, I know — I loved that post of yours! And thanks for the reminder about those German and Austrian Christmas markets — so fabulous.

    Reddnas1, hot buttered rum sounds like a fabulous accompaniment.

  12. 12 Michelle November 20, 2007 at 7:47 am

    Had my first chestnuts from a cart in Cologne two Christmases ago. How could you pass that up? There were very delicious and I too was surprised by how soft the nuts were.

  13. 13 inadvertentgardener November 20, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    Michelle, yum — Cologne! Awesome. The nuts are totally surprising. Glad you got to experience them in Europe.

  14. 14 Annie in Austin November 20, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    Am I the only one who had that stale, slightly moldy tasting Chestnut experience? I’ve never seen them in a cart or from a market… just remember trying to roast chestnuts from plastic wrapped packages at the grocery store and after tasting the result, wondered what the fuss was about.

    Very illuminating, Genie!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  15. 15 inadvertentgardener November 20, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Annie, I think the only reason I didn’t have that experience is because my parents so vehemently protected me from it! Now that I know what the fuss is about, I’m ever so grateful…

  16. 16 Rachel November 21, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    We used to roast them in the coals of our fire place when I was growing up. We’d drop them into salt water to cool them enough to peel and then burn our tongues anyway because we couldn’t wait long enough. But it was worth it. We also used to make them in the oven and put them in stuffing. I still don’t believe in stuffing without chestnuts.

  17. 17 inadvertentgardener November 21, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    Rachel, I had no idea, but apparently my Mom always puts chestnuts in the stuffing. Although they’re not usually fresh. This will be a new thing this year!

  18. 18 Tricia October 19, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    The key to a tasty chestnut is to let the raw nuts sit in their shell for about one to two weeks. The shell will have some give to it when you feel it and you’ll know it’s ready. It’s sorta like bananas…when they are first picked and green they don’t have much taste. But as they ripen they will become sweeter. The same is true for chestnuts. Just don’t wait too long or they will mold.

  19. 19 inadvertentgardener November 12, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Tricia, thanks for that tip! Hope you’ll continue the conversation over at my updated blog, http://www.theinadvertentgardener.com.

  1. 1 What geeks eat… » Blog Archive » Weekend herb blog No. 109 - recap Trackback on November 18, 2007 at 5:27 pm
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