Monday, November 10, 2008

Chestnuts Roasting

Is there anything more quintessentially autumnal than warm freshly roasted chestnuts? I used to eat fresh chestnuts at the autumn and winter festivals in Japan. Street vendors would sell them in little brown bags and they were so heartwarming. Sold for pocket coinage, they came already shelled and skinned and when you opened the little sack a little warm puff of nutty sweet air met you before you put your hand in.

There is an autumnal recipe I am in love with that I started making a couple of years ago for Thanksgiving. I found it again this season and it perfectly pairs apples, chestnuts, sausage and wild rice: it makes me want to special order Minnesota wild rice just to make it. At any rate, I usually find jarred chestnuts at the market to make the dish but recently there were large sacks of bulk fresh chestnuts: we bought them.

It has been getting cold recently and tonight I thought it would be so romantic to roast chestnuts with my roommate and listen to the Thanksgiving Song by George Winston as I begin the early drafts of my Thanksgiving menu. Aoife went down as soon as we got home and I could already smell them roasting in the oven. I won't lie: I was salivating.

I heard the timer go off and I bounded off to the kitchen. I'd never attempted roasting chestnuts in my oven before: the song says "chestnuts roasting over an open fire"... naturally, I deduced that was the only way to do it. As I read every page of December's Bon Appetit, I found a recipe for chestnuts with peppered honey as well as a very simple way to roast them in your oven. 'Life is short', I bemused...

And now I'm standing in front of my stove top, looking at the popped husks, revealing that sweet nutmeat underneath. Roomie has already started shelling one and though they are hot to the touch, with a bamboo tong set, I start peeling one as well. I've never had to peel my own, so when the shell was off and I was looking at the skin, I looked at Roomie and said, "now what?" Pushing the nut between my thumb and forefinger, it cracked again, and inside was an overcooked little chestnut. I took a bite, but it wasn't the flavor I remembered.

We started going through the pile, opening them up, first peeling the shells and then popping the skins but we noticed something: they were either overcooked or rotted. Nice, I thought. Not exactly what I had in mind. As it turns out, chestnuts are the highly perishable and the pretty dish they had been sitting in on my living room table wasn't the environment they needed to be preserved.

I was reading in my foodie encyclopedia yesterday about chestnuts and they have some surprising attributes: chestnuts have the highest water percentage of any other nut (52%, the only other one that comes close is the coconut at 51% all others are less than 10), they have the lowest protein and oil composition of any other nut and are remarkably high in carbohydrates. Harold McGee writes, "chestnuts are best kept covered and refrigerated, and should be eaten fairly quickly. If freshly gathered, however, they should be cured at room temperature for a few days. This improves the flavor by permitting some starch to be converted into sugar before the cells' metabolism is slowed down." Since the world's largest chestnut producers are China, Turkey, Korea and Italy, I'm going to go on a limb and suggest the nuts I bought at the market likely were not within their first couple of days of curing.

Luckily for me though... I recently had a run in with a chestnut tree, so my odds of trying this recipe again with absolutely fresh and local chestnuts has drastically increased.

Watch out, Roomie... that romantic night is coming.

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