Local chestnuts are now in season, and for a limited time, you can find them for sale by the pound at Route 1 Farms and Happy Boy Farms at the Scotts Valley Farmers Market and the Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets. They are about the size of a quarter and the smooth shells are mahogany in color, with a tan oval at the base.
Chestnuts have been eaten by human beings since prehistoric times, and their starch is used as a potato substitute in Europe.
Having never roasted chestnuts on an open-fire, or even really knowingly laid eyes on a chestnut before, I decided to buy a little basket of them from Happy Boy Farms.
When eaten raw, chestnuts have a sweet and nutty flavor, but that flavor gives way to a slightly acrid taste. The high levels of tannic acid they carry is known to cause gastrointestinal distress when eaten raw, so I suggest only tasting a few and cooking the rest. Plus, you’ll have a much easier time peeling their shells off once they are cooked.
Roasting chestnuts over an open fire is not the only way to cook them, although it’s one of those cozy holiday cheer-inducing activities humans have loved for many centuries. When doing it this way, the tradition is to leave the shells of one or two chestnuts unscored. The unscored chestnut will explode with a very loud pop, and this indicates that the rest of the chestnuts are ready to eat.
If you plan to really cook with them though, there are other ways to get the job done, like boiling them in water or roasting them in the oven for 20 minutes or so. This also helps you to get their shells off much easier, although the process is time consuming, no matter how you approach it.
Once you get them cooked and peeled, chestnuts can be a valuable ingredient that will add a distinct flavor to sweet or savory dishes. They are often used to make puddings, breads, soups and sweet desserts. Juliana Gallin, author of The Lazy Gourmet cookbook, recommends a lentil-chestnut soup she has been making for years, from Deborah Madison’s The Savory Way.
“The problem is that peeling the chestnuts is not pleasant. Half of them refuse to open, and then of the half that do, I eat them immediately, so they never even make it to the soup," she said. "So however many chestnuts I need for the recipe, I have to buy four times that amount. It's a lot of work. I have seen pre-peeled, dried chestnuts in stores but haven't tried them yet.”
Madison’s lentil-chestnut soup combines cooked and chopped chestnuts with lentils cooked in water, bay leaves, garlic, parsely, wine and a little tomato paste. The chestnuts are sauteed in a little olive oil, marjoram, thyme and crushed fennel seeds for a few minutes before the wine and tomato paste is added.
To roast chestnuts in the oven, score the top of each one with an X. This will allow the steam to escape and discourage small explosions in your oven. A 400-degree oven for about 25 minutes should do the trick, but the best way to tell they are done is when they start to smell really good, and the shells get crisp and brown.
Do you like chestnuts? What's your favorite way to eat them? Tell us in the comments!