Food vendors were one of my favorite parts about living in New York. As much as I love a roadside falafel plate or a king-sized cinnamon bagel, the most tantalizing food would always come out during the holidays. Nat King Cole’s famous line, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” suddenly materialized on every corner. That’s right: roasted chestnuts EVERYWHERE!
Why, I wondered, had I never seen these gigantic acorn-shaped nuts before? It turns out, there’s a fascinating though tragic story behind the American chestnut.
What happened to American chestnuts?
The American chestnut tree used to grow prolifically across the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. In fact, it was the dominant tree in many forests. These trees had trunks 10 feet wide, often stood 100 feet tall, and were an important part of Native American diets and lifestyle.
At the turn of the 20th century, a blight imported from settlers tore through American chestnut forests. In 1950, just four years after Nat King Cole recorded his famous lyric, a fungal infection had reached the vast majority of chestnut trees. They were, effectively, dead. One source calls it “one of the greatest botanical disasters in Western history.”
Today, only about 100 of these American chestnut trees are still around. The composition of the forests have changed, and the once abundant economies that relied on these trees for food, lumber, and tannins have disappeared. Recently, efforts have attempted to revive American chestnut populations, but most chestnuts eaten in the United States are still imported from Europe and Asia.
Today, you can find (mostly) imported chestnuts on street corners in New York, as I did, or in recipes for Mont Blanc and gourmet stuffing. Because of this history, many in the foodie-verse, including me, consider chestnuts a novelty or delicacy. This stands in stark comparison with its European roots as a peasant food. The British used to feed chestnuts to their pigs, and Italians made polenta (gruel) with chestnut flour before the introduction of American maize!
This brings me to the raw, Italian-imported chestnuts that arrived at my doorstep last week as an unexpected early Christmas gift. I was giddy to find this bag of dinosaur-sized nuts amidst holiday goodies. I decided to make my own roasted chestnuts, but instead of an open fire, I roasted mine in, uh, a closed oven.
With a little TLC, these are not hard nuts to crack (peel?), and a very simple recipe could have you snacking on this ancient food source in no time.
- Wash your chestnuts before scoring; also, use a VERY sharp knife. Piercing the skin without cutting the nut is the hardest part of the process.
- Score the nuts with an X on the FLAT side. It’s not easy on the round side, as I found out the hard way.
- Pre-soak your chestnuts for two hours before roasting. This way, they’ll steam in the oven and you’ll avoid hard, dry nuts.
But most importantly…
How to tell when roasted chestnuts are done
When you buy chestnuts, they generally have two layers: an endocarp, or shell, and a seed coat, or inner lining. As it cooks, the shell will first peel away from the inner lining. As the nut gets smaller, it will peel away from the inner lining. Your chestnuts are ready (and easiest to peel) when the nut just starts peeling away from both layers.
Pro tip: don’t look for golden brown here. It’s not a great sign to have over-done nuts. Take them out before that point.
There are many awesome recipes out there that call for chestnuts. If I were to choose, I’d start with Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage’s Dirty Rice (it’s vegan!) or Hetty McKinnon’s easy Roasted Chestnut and Cremini Mushroom Soup.
A holiday classic and bygone American tradition. Make roasted chestnuts for snacking or as preparation for a recipe that calls for roasted chestnuts.
1 pound chestnuts
- Wash chestnuts in a colander.
- Using a sharp knife, cut an “X” into the flat side of the chestnuts.
- Soak chestnuts in a large bowl of water for 2 hours.
- 30 minutes before the 2 hours is up, preheat your oven to 450 Fahrenheit.
- Once chestnuts are done soaking, dry them off and place them, cut side up, on a baking sheet.
- Bake for 25 minutes, or until chestnuts are done. Start checking for doneness around 15 minutes and every 5 minutes after that. Do not overcook!
- Cool the chestnuts wrapped in a kitchen towel to retain moisture.
- Peel chestnuts by pulling on the side and bottom tabs of your “X” first, before peeling away the top tab.
- Enjoy your chestnuts or add to your favorite recipe!
Keywords: chestnuts, holiday, nuts, basics, roasting, roasted chestnuts, healthy food, vegan, vegetarian, one-ingredient