I had the thrill of traveling France and Italy over the Holidays in the early part of this decade. I spent almost a month exploring this part of Europe (my first time “overseas”) and eating my way through the old world.
I started the trip in Firenze (Florence) and remember the first night I spent there vividly. Small market streets had ceilings of white lights draped between buildings guiding our way through wet winter streets. Many were dressed like they were forging through the bitter arctic – I remember feeling warm as the temperature was well over freezing. Perspective is a funny thing.
I came around a corner and almost ran into an old red food cart. It was tended by an older Italian gentleman armed with a scoop and small paper bags. I had no idea what he was selling but knew I had to try. He filled a small bag with roasted chestnuts. Their hard shells had been pre-sliced and were warm to the touch. A quick peel of the shell revealed a warm jewel that was soft and savory-sweet. I was in love.
Chestnuts have been a Christmas tradition since. They are seasonal and, if lucky local. Much of North America’s native Chestnuts were wiped out in the early 1900’s by blight and many Chestnuts come from overseas – although this seems to be changing as more people are buying them in the fall and signs of chestnuts returning as a late fall crop are more frequent.
Before cooking, you need to cut the hard shell. This can be difficult. Use a sharp pairing knife and score an “X” in the flat size of the shell. I rest the chestnut on a pillow made from a kitchen towel so that it does not roll. This can be frustrating but worth your time.
Once you’ve scored the chestnut, add heat. Deep fry, roast in the oven at 450, bake at 350, throw them on the grill or boil them. I tend to bake them – the key is simply to cook them until the shell swells and can be easily removed. If they are difficult to peel, add more heat.
You can mash them if you boil them, eat them with cheese if they are roasted or eat them out of the shell. I eat many as is before rough chopping a bunch and adding them to our stuffing for our turkey.
Any other uses for chestnuts? Any other favorite Christmas food traditions from afar?