Chestnuts Roasting...Grilling or Boiling
It's that time of year, and while most pragmatists will shake their heads semi-woefully at how quickly the deluge of carols, ribbons, and wreathes floods post Halloween, I can't help but plunge head first into all of it, most of the time. Holiday nostalgia never fails to brighten and sharpen a torrent of childhood memories, the simplest carrying with them clouds of unexpected comfort. This year I've been reliving with fondness one of my favorite holiday food rituals that strangely may rival even rolling out, cutting and decorating all sorts of cookie shapes: chestnuts. My Mom's face would glow when she revealed that chestnuts had made their annual appearance at the grocery store. Contrary to the trademark song, however, she wouldn't typically roast them, and certainly not over an open fire. She boiled them, and after 15 minutes or so of simmering, my sisters and I would sit around the kitchen table with her and rapidly peel with her. There's something oddly gratifying about getting a chestnut to reveal itself entirely with just a little tug at it's covering. I remember thinking that warm, boiled chestnuts sweetly melted in your mouth with a texture resembling marzipan. I also remember thinking that undamaged, peeled chestnuts looked like tiny brains, perhaps suited for little chipmunk skulls. Not the most appetizing image, but maybe that's a testament to just how tasty they really are; I could get past the image without a flicker of an eyelid. You have to work quickly at this stage, regardless of your chosen cooking method, as they begin to harden and stick to their shells as they cool, and you find yourself increasingly labeling the plump nuts as "a bad one". So, bearing this in mind, it's best to have a partner or two in peeling, and much more fitting with the festive spirit to do so.
This year, I brought sweet potatoes and this wild rice and chestnut dressing from Cooking Light to our friends' home (it was a really nice stuffing alternative, by the way--although I love stuffing--and we mixed in some chopped kale, a little sausage, and some leftover chicken stock the next day for an easy, satisfying, tasty dinner). The recipe calls for bottled roasted chestnuts, but I wanted to buy whole chestnuts and prepare them completely myself. Bottled chestnuts are expensive, or so I've heard, and besides, I couldn't find them (I did look!). I called my Mom for advice, and while talking to her, realized I had a perfect opportunity for some fun comparing by cooking method. Here's what I tried and/or mean to try:
Wipe chestnuts clean and place flat-side down on a cutting board (I put them on a dish towel on top of the cutting board). Use a small, sharp knife to cut a small X in the top. This scoring is vital for hassle-free peeling later. The outer shells are surprisingly easy to cut considering their sturdy appearance, but you have to be careful nonetheless.
Cook completely by bringing to a boil in a saucepan, simmering for 15-20 minutes. Remember they are increasingly difficult to peel, so work at a steady, quick pace, and keep the chestnuts in the hot/warm water until you're ready for each one. These have a tendency to fall apart, at least more easily than when roasted. In this way, they are well suited for purees, or recipes that benefit from a moist texture. That said, the boiling method wasn't a problem, was simple, and more efficient with regard to heat. I used boiled and roasted chestnuts in the wild rice dressing, and both worked great.
You can also do a short boil, simmering for about 3-5 minutes simple to ease shell removal, then complete cooking within your recipe.
Roast prepared chestnuts on a baking sheet in a 400-degree F oven for 15 to 20 minutes. You may want to stir these occasionally. The little x-marks scored on the shells burst open a bit, and the chestnuts are firmer and nuttier than the boiling method. They are also a little less sweet tasting. You can almost pop some of them out of their coverings.
I don't personally have much access to an open fire, or really have the nerve or desire to try it just yet, but if you're determined, there are tools available for this, too! They're sensibly called chestnut roasters.
Another method I didn't try, but read about, is grilling. As with roasting, bring your grill to 400- degrees F, and cook directly on the grate if possible, or otherwise in some kind of grill topper, for approximately 20 minutes. Be sure to turn your chestnuts frequently with this method, and let me know how the taste compares, if you try it!
Photo credit: Flikr user Quite Adept