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Chestnuts Roasting

Learn how to cut into the tough nut without losing a finger

Friday, February 04, 2011

The holidays are long over, but chestnut-lovers who have been roasting probably still have scars from the festive, yet dangerous, endeavor of roasting chestnuts. Fortunately, there are easier ways to cut into the nuts’ brittle outer shells so that they don’t explode over an open fire or in the oven.

Freelance chef Amy Chaplin, who grew up in Australia and had a chestnut tree in her yard, admits that she almost always inflicted injury on herself when trying to score chestnuts. “I’d been struggling with sticking a paring knife in either end of it, thinking that was the top, and usually cutting myself,” she says. That was until she found out a much better way to go about it.

Chaplin (pictured below) says the first step is laying the chestnut on its flat side so that it doesn’t wobble. Using a serrated knife, slice across the exposed, curved top. Once the chestnuts are scored and all fingers are intact, put the chestnuts in a pot, cover them with water, bring them to a boil. Drain, then pop them into the oven for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. “Then they’re ready,” she says. “It’s really quick. Although it is good to let them sit a little bit outside. So, I just cover them up so they steam. And then they’re easier to peel, and I feel like the center gets nice and soft and creamy.”

Amy Chaplin

Chaplin notes it’s important to get chestnuts that are as fresh as possible. That means going on the hunt for them now, since chestnut season peaks in December and finishes in March. Freshness can be indicated by a shell that’s not too brittle. One reason chestnuts are sometimes hard to find in the states is because a blight in the early 1900s killed many of the trees in America.

“Dried chestnuts, which can be difficult to find even in specialty stores, can be broken up and cooked in sweet rice and brown rice in an Asian style,” Chaplin says.

While the most common danger associated with chestnuts usually comes in the preparing process, there’s also another hidden danger: getting horse chestnuts instead of edible chestnuts. That was a lesson learned by food writer Cathy Erway, who received a package in the mail from some well-meaning friends. Erway didn’t realize the chestnuts in the package—which were bigger, bumpier and more irregular than edible chestnuts—were only intended for decorative purposes. (You can read about her disastrous experience trying to roast the horse chestnuts here.) “I reached out to Deb Perelman, who I mentioned in my blog post, and she said, 'I think you have horse chestnuts, which I’d never heard of before',” says Erway. “And I looked it up and, of course, they are poisonous and not edible.”

For delicious, edible chestnuts, however, Chaplin’s recipe for roasting is below.

Roasted Chestnuts

  • Fresh chestnuts, about six per person
  • Large pinch sea salt

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rinse chestnuts and place on a cutting board. Lie flat and use a serrated knife to cut a slit in the shell across the top. Repeat with all the chestnuts.

Place in a saucepan, cover with water, add salt and bring to a boil. Once water has boiled, strain chestnuts, transfer to a roasting pan and bake for 15 minutes.

Remove from oven where the chestnut shells should have split open, making them very easy to peel. Cover with a towel and set aside for about 15 minutes, allowing the chestnuts to steam.

Pop them out of their skins and enjoy while warm.

Fresh chestnuts on the tree.
Bonnie Chaplin
Fresh chestnuts on the tree.
The chestnut tree outside Amy Chaplin's childhood home in Australia.
Bonnie Chaplin
The chestnut tree outside Amy Chaplin's childhood home in Australia.
Fresh chestnuts have an outer skin that is surprisingly spiky and green.
Bonnie Chaplin
Fresh chestnuts have an outer skin that is surprisingly spiky and green.
Chaplin recommends scoring the chestnuts across the curved top.
Amy Chaplin
Chaplin recommends scoring the chestnuts across the curved top.
It's important to score chestnuts so they don't explode in the oven.
Amy Chaplin
It's important to score chestnuts so they don't explode in the oven.
Chaplin recommends covering the chestnuts after taking them out of the oven.
Chaplin recommends covering the chestnuts after taking them out of the oven.
Chaplin's method of boiling the chestnuts makes peeling much easier.
Amy Chaplin
Chaplin's method of boiling the chestnuts makes peeling much easier.
Naked chestnuts, ready for consumption.
Amy Chaplin
Unshelled chestnuts, vulnerable and ready for consumption.

Guests:

Amy Chaplin

Hosted by:

Amy Eddings

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Comments [4]

Joy Y. Wang

Thanks for the great comments (and memories).

A WNYC colleague also noted that there are usually chestnut vendors across from MoMA.

Feb. 06 2011 04:03 PM
Richard Snyder from Brooklyn, NY

I lived in Ardeche area of France for two years in the 1980's. All of the trees were Chestnuts. When the fruit ripened, the spiny green balls would fall to the ground. During the chilly nights we listened to them landing on the clay tiles of the roof of our little home. We gathered up hundreds. We has a very simple way of eating them. We peeled away the outer covering, removed the nuts and cut little x's on the upper stem. Then they were heated in a pan over a chestnut wood fire. We spent many hours perfecting the cooking time. The best ones were sweet, brown on the outside and soft on the inside. Thanks for reminding me of one of the most perfect culinary experiences in my life.

Feb. 04 2011 08:04 PM
Donald

P.S. I see vendors selling Chestnuts in the touristy areas around Christmas. Try 5th Ave. south of Central Park.

Feb. 04 2011 06:03 PM
Donald

Horse-chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) are from a different family of plants, Sapindaceae, instead of Fagaceae for the Chestnut (Castanea sativa). This article illustrates the confusion that can result from using common names and not scientific names. Around here Horse-chestnuts are planted as ornamentals as they have large beautiful spikes of flowers.

Yes, the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) was nearly wiped out by Chestnut blight.

Feb. 04 2011 05:59 PM

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