Thursday, November 16, 2006

Roasted American Chestnuts

UPDATE: For a wonderful treatise on chestnuts, by an American expat living in France, please click here.
At the Farmers Market last Saturday a Willow Creek farmer had boxes of freshly harvested American chestnuts on display next to a gas grill in which two cast iron skillets of chestnuts were roasting, giving off such an aroma that dozens of people were standing around, transfixed, waiting to have a taste. I asked him how many trees he had and he replied that he had six. Six trees and all those chestnuts. And he said there were more on the trees waiting to be harvested. This coming Saturday is the last Farmers Market day of the season for the Arcata Plaza. You will find me waiting in line at the "chestnut guy's" stand.

To my knowledge, I'd never seen a chestnut tree until we went to Europe last year. In the Perigord Noir region of France, young chestnut trees spread their branches over lush green grass. In Domme, the parking lot was lined with them, their fall colors of rust, orange and yellow a marked contrast against the blue Autumn sky. I have three of those Domme chestnuts in a dish on my kitchen ledge. I had put them in a jacket pocket and forgot about them. They quietly sailed through customs.

When we went to New England this fall, I saw my first American chestnut tree in a revolutionary war cemetary in Newburyport, Mass. There's a poignancy about these once majestic trees; maybe it's because of their struggle to survive both disease and human harvest in this country. A strong movement is afoot in the eastern US to revive the American Chestnut to its former range and glory. You can read more about that movement here.

I've tried roasting chestnuts just one time previous to this and the results were disappointing. Then, I didn't know how to tell when a roasting chestnut was "done". Now I know that you roast them for at least 30 minutes in a 350 oven and, as Mr. Chestnut Guy said, "don't burn them." They can also be roasted in a covered grill, or boiled in water. One thing you must do before roasting is to make a criss-cross cut in the bottom of each chestnut. This keeps them from exploding which I guess could be surprising, messy and a bit dangerous, depending on your cooking method.

I found that "using a sharp knife", as Mark Bittman in his book How to Cook Everything instructs for making the X in the bottom of the chestnut, didn't work for me and seemed fraught with the danger of me slicing into a finger. My little gray kitchen scissors with their very sharp points, however, worked like a charm.

To roast the chestnuts you can use a cast iron skillet, a chestnut pan (as pictured) or a piece of foil punched with holes. I'm sure there are many other ways to go about this; an old-fashioned popcorn popper on a wood stove comes to mind.) So, I pre-heated my oven to 350, snipped those Xs into the bottoms of the chestnuts, covered the pan with foil, punched holes in the foil with a skewer then placed the pan in the oven. After 20 minutes, I opened the foil lid and pulled a chestnut out to check for doneness. It was still a bit raw-tasting, although I don't really know what a raw chestnut tastes like, so I recovered the pan, gave it a shake and put it back in the oven for another 10 minutes. And that seemed to be the perfect timing -- 30 minutes. The shells had peeled back somewhat from the X cuts and were slightly loose around the nut. I pulled the pan out of the oven, took the foil off and let the nuts cool until I could handle them.

Just peeling the shell off of a nut isn't enough. Inside is a papery brown skin that not only covers the entire nut, it's also embedded in the deep fissures. Removing this skin was time consuming. I found that the easiest way to do it was to hold a small sharp knife at a 90-degree angle to the nut and scrape. Use the point of the knife to release the skin from the fissures. Clean fingernails also come in handy.

Here they are in all their sweet, naked glory. They look like small brains, don't they? Chestnuts have a rather dry, grainy texture and a slightly sweet, starchy taste. I like them eaten out of hand but wouldn't do too much of that as they are definitely not a low carb food.
In 1/2 cup of roasted chestnuts there are 37.9 grams of carbohydrate and 5.5 grams of fiber for a net carb count of 32.4 grams. Still, I plan to use them in some special dishes this holiday season and post them here.
It's time for Weekend Herb Blogging again, hosted this week by Nandita of Saffron Trail. Begun over a year ago by my friend Kalyn at Kalyn's Kitchen, you can learn about this weekly blogging event by clicking here. If you want to join in the fun, send your link in an e-mail to saffrontrail AT gmail DOT com.