How to Prepare and Roast Chestnuts
What are Chestnuts?
In the fall months, you'll start finding chestnuts at the grocery stores and produce markets. They are a specialty treat usually eaten around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The chestnuts do need to be roasted to get off the outer shell. If you are fortunate, you may be able to find these in the woods in your area.
At one time, the forest of the US were covered with chestnut trees. In the early 1900s a blight was brought over from China and has since ruined most of the wild trees. The northwestern states are the only place where you'll still see them growing wild in the US. For some reason the blight has never reached there.
I can remember seeing these as a kid in the woods, but I didn't know what the trees were. Now as an adult, I don't see them here in Michigan anymore. I don't wander the woods like I once did, but I imagine the blight has destroyed all of them.
Chestnuts that grow anywhere else in this country are new hybrid trees that have been specially bred to resist the blight. One chestnut tree can produce as many as 250 pounds or more of chestnuts each year. The hardwood from a chestnut is a high quality wood, so the blight created the loss of an important natural resource.
If you have your own chestnut tree or are lucky enough to live in a state where the wild American chestnut trees can be found, it is easy to harvest the nuts. During the summer, the nuts are covered by burrs, but these split open and the nuts then fall to the ground in the fall.
You need to hurry and pick these up right after they fall from the tree. If not they will become moldy or wormy. The squirrels or rodents like to get them too.
Look for nuts that are all about the same size, so when you roast them they roast evenly. Don't buy chestnuts that have had misters over them at the store, since a wet environment promotes molds. Check that the shells are a shiny brown.
If you can press the shell and it doesn't leave an indentation, this is a sign of freshness. These are good chestnuts to purchase.
How to Roast Chestnuts
Chestnuts need to be roasted or boiled to remove the shell. It is an easy process. First be sure to run them under cold water to wash them and then allow them to dry.
After roasting, if the meat of the nut has a vinegary smell, is slimy or has a blue streak through it, don't eat the nut. It means that it is not fresh. Throw it out.
Method 1: To roast the chestnuts, just place them in a 375 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Then you will be able to peel them.
Method 2: To shell by boiling, first use a sharp knife and cut a crisscross cut across the flat side of the shell. Simmer about 15 minutes or until they are soft. Once you remove the nuts from the water you can remove the skin. It helps to just remove one nut at a time. Remove the skins with a sharp knife.
Method 3: You can roast the chestnuts over an open fire, just like the old song. This can become a memorable family tradition. You will need a special pan with a lid with holes in the bottom. These can be purchased or you can make one yourself. Be sure to use a pan with a long handle. A skillet works best and you need to poke several holes in the bottom to release steam. These holes need to be about 3/16" in diameter.
Use chestnuts that are all about the same size and after cleaning under the faucet, cut a crosswise x across each nut making sure that it goes all of the way through the skin. This will prevent it from exploding.
Place them in the pan and let roast over the open fire for about 15 to 25 minutes or until the nuts are soft. The shells will start to open when they are ready.
Now you just need to peel open the chestnuts when they've cooled enough to touch them. Eat them warm either plain or salted.
Chestnuts are a little different from other nuts. They have little fat content, but are high in starch. Eat them freshly roasted with a little salt. They can be prepared like a vegetable or can be added to soups and sauces and are delicious in stuffing. A main dish can also be made from them. The chestnuts can also be added to desserts and pastry.