Cooking with Fresh Chestnuts

Fresh chestnuts can be roasted, steamed, or boiled to remove the outer shell that envelops their richly flavored meat. It is actually very simple to do and, especially during holidays, creates a festive atmosphere. Before roasting or cooking chestnuts, the outer shell must be slit to keep it from exploding as the moisture within turns to steam. To make the cut, either lay the chestnut on its flat side and cut a slit halfway around the outer shell, or make two slits in the form of a cross on the flatter side of the chestnut. The slits will also facilitate peeling off both the outer shell and the pellicle (the brown inner membrane). Next, cook the chestnuts using any of the following methods, but be aware that boiled chestnuts are the easiest to peel.

Roasting over an open fire: Use a grill basket or fireplace popcorn popper. Put the chestnuts (already slit) in the basket, one layer deep, and hold them several inches above the fire, shaking frequently. To prevent charring, don't hold them too close to the fire. When they're done, their skins will be blackened. Immediately wrap roasted chestnuts within a cloth or dish towel and squeeze them until they crackle. Set them aside, still wrapped in the cloth, in a warm place for 5 minutes, then peel off the shell and pellicle while they're still warm. Once they cool, the task becomes difficult and frustrating.

Oven roasting: Place cut chestnuts on a cookie sheet and roast at 400° F to 425° F for 15–20 minutes until the edges of the slit curl back and the chestnut meat becomes soft. Peel while still warm as instructed above.

Stovetop roasting: This is best done with a chestnut roasting pan, which looks like a skillet with holes in the bottom. Put the slit chestnuts in the pan one layer deep and sprinkle water over them. Place the pan over medium heat, using a heat diffuser or metal trivet on an electric stove to create some space between the pan and the element to prevent burning. Shake the pan back and forth frequently. The chestnuts are done when their skins have blackened, usually about 5-10 minutes. Peel while still warm as instructed above.

Boiling: Add pierced chestnuts to a pan of boiling water, and cook at medium heat for about 15 minutes until they can be easily pierced with a knife. Drain and allow them to partially cool, just enough until they can be handled, removing the chestnut meat from the shell with a fork. Overcooked chestnuts will have a mealy, crumbly texture.

Steaming: To steam chestnuts, you must first cut them in half lengthwise rather than slitting them. Place in a steamer basket in a pot, add water to about 1 inch below the basket and bring to a boil. Put the chestnuts in the steamer basket and steam for 8–10 minutes, until the meat separates from the shell and the desired level of softness is reached.

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