Christmas chestnuts roasting on an open fire…or right in your oven. Here’s to bringing this underused fruit/nut to your holiday table.
I’m a New Yorker through and through. Though I’ve lived in Colorado for some 40 years, my East coast accent is still detectable. Back in my younger days, I’d walk to work in high heels, from the east side of Manhattan to the west side, sometimes stopping to admire St. Patrick’s Cathedral or Rockefeller Plaza as I made my way through the city. I’ve even been known to grab a hot dog from a street vender for lunch and not drop mustard on my white cashmere sweater. (Now that takes New York courage. And, as I’m fond of saying, that’s another story to be told.)
I’ve visited the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Chrysler Building. I’ve frequented Broadway, Times Square, SoHo, the Fulton Fish Market, and the famed New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. I’ve ridden horses in Central Park and stopped by the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. I’ve eaten steaks at Delmonico’s more than once, and my first taste of good scotch was at Redhead’s afterhours lounge. Yes, New York is my town.
Here’s another New York memory I will never forget: buying hot-roasted chestnuts from street vendors at Christmastime. Served in a newspaper cone, they warm your hands as well as your heart on damp but festive New York evenings. Most of us forget about chestnuts throughout the year, until Nat King Cole’s classic Christmas song comes around to remind us again.
But, my friends, chestnuts are a staple in Italian households from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. My maternal grandfather, Poppa, would be in charge of cutting and roasting them, and he was almost ceremonial in their preparation. Using his cleaned pocket knife, he carefully cut an X on the rounded side and put a slit on the flat bottom side before dropping each chestnut into a bowl of ice water until the batch was all done. I can see him inspecting the knife that he carried with him always. To this day I imagine all the work that knife did—but once a year, it was a chestnut cutter.
Poppa would pull a roasted chestnut out and toss it like a hot potato from hand to hand. To check the creaminess inside, he would squeeze it between his fingers on the X. He always shared this first prize with me, and we would smell its earthy fragrance before eating it. And Poppa would always say, “A few minutes more for perfection.”
It is far easier to purchase cooked chestnuts, sold in jars in most grocery markets. However, if you want to start your own holiday tradition and roast your own, here’s how:
Cut: On the top rounded side of each chestnut, cut an X to a depth of ¼-inch, and make a slit across the bottom side. (Don’t go to deep, or you may cut into the meat.)
Soak: Cover chestnuts in 2 inches of water and soak for 15–20 minutes, then drain well. (Some people like to soak them in warm water. Some like to wash them in cold water first, and then soak in warm water. And some, like Poppa, soaked them in ice water. I simply sprinkle them with water before baking. But the soaking softens the shell and makes it easier to cut.)
Roast: Heat oven to 400°F. Place chestnuts in a shallow metal pan in the middle of the oven. Shake the pan often until the shells curl away at the X mark, about 15–20 minutes. Remove one chestnut to check for doneness. Wearing protective gloves, peel away the shells while still hot.
Chef’s note: In my opinion, this is the perfect accompaniment for a Christmas bird (capon, turkey, or a properly appointed roast goose). It is so festive, and the touch of brandy adds elegance. This casserole can also standalone for a weeknight dinner.
1½ lbs. cooked chestnuts (sold in jars in grocery stores)
3 cups homemade stock
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
3 tablespoons brandy
3 cups bread cubes
2 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
Salt and black pepper
- Place chestnuts in a medium sauce pan. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Let them cool a little, then drain them, but be sure reserve some of the stock. Mash to a puree. (It will look like lumpy mashed potatoes.) Set aside.
- In a large frying pan, sauté the celery and onions in the butter. Add sausage to the pan, crumbling it well as it cooks. Next, add the chestnut puree and mix well. Remove from the heat.
- Combine brandy, bread cubes, parsley, and the salt and pepper with the chestnut mixture. It will be moist. If too dry, add a little of the reserved stock that the chestnuts were boiled in.
- Spoon the sausage stuffing into a buttered casserole. Bake at 375°F for about 45 minutes, or until hot. Serve with your roast Christmas bird, or as a main course.