For years now, roasting chestnuts have been part of my fall ritual. Back in Dutchess County, NY, a friend of ours, an older woman, would turn up with a big bag of them, ones she picked up from her backyard, one nut at a time. I would smile, graciously thank her, and hope she didn’t notice me tossing out like two-thirds of them, because there really is a limit to how many chestnuts you can feed even the most active of families. I confess I don’t really even like chestnuts, except in my chestnut-squash soup. But I do like roasting chestnuts. And I’ve learned a thing or two in that department.
Never Bullshit Winston Churchill
I always used to roast them for about 30 or 40 minutes at right around 400º. It was a shoot-from-the-hip procedure that generally yielded dried-out chestnuts. If you ever bought chestnuts pre-roasted and stuck in a jar, you’ll know that they can be nice and golden and chewy, yet here mine kept coming out dry and crusty. I think it was Winston Churchill who once said, “A crusty chestnut is the best chestnut there is, except for all other chestnuts.” There’s no way to misinterpret that observation: I needed to better live up to Winston Churchill’s heartfelt (albeit totally made-up) sentiment, and to do so, I needed to Google some chestnut-prep articles.
What I found out there on the open net was a fairly consistent but ultimately unsatisfying collection of remarks, perhaps just echoes of one another. They all said 425º for 20-30 minutes, straight. That’s no way to roast a chestnut if you want it to look like the golden chewy chestnuts they sell in jars for $15 a pop, so I kept on looking. What I found–a whole 30 seconds later–was Gourmet’s take on the subject. Instead of an oven roast, though, they do a pan roast, tossing the nuts in oil first, cook on medium, then, towards the end, they pour in a little water and clamp the lid for a nice steaming finish.
Gourmet (RIP) was probably right on the money, but since I never ever do what they say to do in recipes, I decided to transport the oil and water down below, into the 400º oven. The principles were clear, and I felt more comfortable with the longer, less handled approach. So into the oven, along with a pan of water, went my nuts. But not before I scored and oiled them.
How Not to Lose a Finger
I never actually tried to make chestnuts explode by sticking them in a hot oven without slicing their shells first. I have, however, almost lost fingers doing the said slicing. After you preheat the oven, slice an X into each shell, but do it carefully, for the love of God.
Chef Norman Weinstein, who teaches knife skills in NYC, says that a blunt knife will kill you quicker than a sharp one. The proof of this is in chestnut shells. Try slicing down with a knife that isn’t well-honed, and it slides to one side or another lightning quick, potentially ejecting the chestnut in an equal opposite reaction. After too many near-missing fingers, I have adopted what I call the paper-cutter technique, named after the one-armed guillotines that I presume are still found in every teacher’s lounge in America.
Instead of using a paring knife, I pull out my big-ass 10″ cook’s knife. Most, but not all, nuts have a flat side. Set the nut on the center of the cutting board flat side down. Put the tip of the knife (I almost typed “sword”) down on one side of the cutting board, with your non-dominant hand over it there to hold it in place. Then, with your other hand, bring the knife down on top of the chestnut like a paper cutter.
The blade should touch the nut about two-thirds of the way up its blade towards the handle. You will quickly learn whether or not your knife is due for a sharpening–or if the chestnut itself is too old for roasting: If those babies aren’t taut, and don’t just give under a sharp knife, you are going to have a hard time removing the middle layer of skin between the shell and the meat.
I paper-cut my way through my batch of nuts, then toss them in a bowl with a couple splashes of vegetable oil. I toss them around the bowl till they glisten evenly–insert oiled glistening nuts joke here, preferably something that could be told by Hank Azaria in a non-specific Mediterranean accent–then lay them out on a cookie sheet.
Both the oil coating the nut, and the water in the pan beneath are there to keep moisture from escaping. I roasted these babies at 400º because I thought a longer slightly less hot approach would be better, but that technically could have dried them out.
I checked them at 20 minutes and then yanked them out at 30 minutes, and they were definitely cooked through. I peeled and ate one, right out of the oven, and it was good. Not good, like “Oh, let’s all eat chestnuts, all the days of our lives!” but good like “Wow, this thing fell from a tree and I cooked it and it’s actually not terrible.” The best of the peeled finished product looked like so:
So what did I learn?
• I learned that the water definitely helped–stick a pan in there whenever you roast nuts, like you do when you bake bread.
• I learned that I probably could have gone with 425º for less time, say 25 minutes, and maybe get a little more carmelization in the process.
• I learned that while my paper-cutter technique definitely saves lives, I might be slicing too deep into the meat of the chestnut itself, and that I’d be better off cutting less deeply, perhaps with a paring knife after all.
• I learned that you shouldn’t be afraid of people just because they look or talk differently, and that being nice is its own reward. Wait a sec. Oh damn you, Sesame Street, for creeping into my thought processes!
The nice thing is, the chestnuts I roasted here–though destined for the soup pot every last one–were closer to the storebought ideal than I’d ever attained before. One in particular stood out as so golden and chewy, if it was being chased through a grocery by an ax murderer, it could jump right into a jar of chestnuts to hide, and its pursuer would never be able to single it out. That’s how golden and chewy it was! They were good, and they were even better in the magnificent soup I whipped up using only a butternut squash, a pound of butter, and a gallon of heavy cream (and some other stuff). But that tale is for next time, when we go from nuts to soup.