Back 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, although 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, and 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.
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.