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.


hoome cook said...

Hi Christine .
I also have disappointing results of roasting chestnuts. Thank you very much for the criss-cross cut tip before roasting . Top tip !!

Mimi J. said...

What a beautiful post, Christine. My family roasted chestnuts "over an open fire," in fact, a few holidays ago and they were wonderful.

About chestnut trees: I have one in my yard and was told my a local extension expert that this area was borderline for chestnut trees. Our tree never had more than a few blooms (or "candles," as I think they are sometime called).

Last year, we happened to be in Paris when the chestnuts were blooming and they were magnificent!

That year, our tree bloomed as never before. My husband and I both wondered if the tree somehow sensed that it had to put on a show for us to compete with the Paris trees.

We had a milder spring this year, but the tree was nowhere near as lovely as it was in 2005.

christine said...

Hello Home Cook,
I hope you have better luck this time!

Hi Mimi,
A chestnut tree in your very own yard!! Now I'm jealous! Do you have any photos of your tree?

Glenna said...

Wow! Thanks for the post. I had no idea roasting chestnuts was so much work but think of how much you'll enjoy the dishes you make with them. Can't wait to see those too.

Kalyn said...

Fabulous job on this. Great photos. I didn't know any of this about roasting chestnuts, haven't tasted them that I know and had NO IDEA they were so high in carbs. Very interesting. I learned a lot.

Jann said...

these are so are very fortunate to have them right in your back yard! And, they are just perfect looking!Good in turkey dressing....

Anonymous said...

I love chestnuts the best one I tasted so far where ones we picked in Normandy a month ago when we were leaving a monastery grounds. Have you tried microwaving them as long as you slit them first they are very easy to peel. Nothing beats roasting them on an open fire though. Your pictures look lovely.

sher said...

Thank you for this. I really love them but have never roasted them myself. I've seen some for sale at the Nugget. Now I feel like I can do it.

Anonymous said...

This blog is wonderfull!! The pictuers help so much!! I have 3 trees in my yard, and have wanted to try roasting nuts now for a long time and had no idea how to do it. I tried last night, but didnt know where to put the 'x'. I burned them as the only instructions I had found said a 425 degree oven for an hour. they burned after 20 minutes, but were still raw inside. My husband tried one anyway, and is sick this morning. thank you for your informaitve blog.

Christine said...

Dear Anonymous, I'm glad I could be of help. Sorry about your husband getting sick, but unless the chestnut was rotten, it shouldn't be the culprit. I've heard that chestnuts may be eaten raw as well as cooked. Here are two links, one pro-raw and one anti-raw.