Many Asian people are crazy for chestnuts, particularly this time of the year when they’re in season. Last week outside of the Mitsuwa Japanese market in San Jose, there was a vendor roasting and selling bags of freshly roasted chestnuts. The caramel-like aroma wafted into the store whenever the doors slid open.
When chestnuts are out of season, chestnut lovers get their fill via bags of pre-roasted chestnuts at Asian markets. They’re usually in the snack aisle or near the cash registers, well positioned for that last-minute impulse buy. Then there are also dried chestnuts, which I’ve seen mentioned in a few Chinese recipes. (Have you ever cooked with dried chestnuts? I vaguely recalling that they have a smoky quality.)
In my family, we’re holiday chestnut eaters. It’s a Viet-French thing. Every year for as long as I can remember, my parents have hunted down the biggest chestnuts (hat de) for our holiday dressing and to simmer in butter, stock, and cilantro for a side dish.
My parents would roast and shell them together. For them it was a couple kind of activity. They didn’t let us kids get involved, perhaps because the nuts were pricey and my mom is persnickety about trying to peel every single nut perfectly so that it would retain its brain-like appearance.
A number of years ago, I started buying chestnuts from my famer’s market and peeling my own. It’s a chore as your finger tips get a workout. However, it’s a nice cool-weather, after-dinner sort of task. A little wine and a friend move things along.
Digging through my freezer recently, I came across a gallon-size bag of chestnuts from 2006. I’d been hoarding them and it was time to face the nuts! My husband, Rory, shares and understands my craze for chestnuts and generously agreed to help. (Read: I now owe him big time.)
We shelled the three pounds of nuts in about an hour. You don’t have to do that large of a quantity. Peeling a pound is enough to get you by. Remember that chestnuts swell a bit in cooking so there is some extra payoff for your efforts.
With all those nuts, I did what my mom would have done: simmered them with chicken broth, butter, and cilantro. The whole ones were served as a side and the broken ones were added to a sticky rice stuffing (for the recipe, see Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, page 248). Both chestnut laden dishes accompanied the roasted butterflied chicken with curry leaf.
It was a lovely autumn meal that I presented to our dinner guests as my practice Thanksgiving. In hindsight, I was probably just looking for an excuse to eat a ton of chestnuts!
Buying and Storing Chestnuts
Chestnuts are in season in the late fall and early winter so you may be able to get some fresh ones still. (Chinese and Korean markets are good source for them.) Select shiny, heavy-feeling nuts and store them in a cool, dry place. Use the nuts while they're still full and heavy. Or, freeze them unshelled, thawing them in the refrigerator before use.
Note: I have a deep freezer and kept my chestnuts for years but they were a bit on the dry side. Given that, don’t keep them frozen for that long! I’d say 12 months is enough.
How to Shell and Peel Chestnuts
To shell and peel chestnuts, first use a sharp paring knife to cut a cross on the flat side of the nut; do this on a dishtowel to prevent the nut from rolling away.
Preheat a toaster oven or regular oven to 400°F. Place the nuts, about a dozen at a time, cut side up, directly on the rack or in a shallow pan. Bake them until they feel hot and the cut part of the shells open and curl (about 5 minutes in the toaster oven, or 10 to 15 minutes in the regular oven).
Put the nuts on a dishtowel, wrap them up, and squeeze on them to crack their shells. Working on one at a time, remove the smooth outer shell and then peel, scrape, and/or cut off the papery inner brown skin. Use the knife tip to pry out skin bits stuck in the crevices. It's okay if a nut breaks during peeling. (You don’t have to be like my mother.)
As you work, keep unpeeled nuts warm in the dishtowel so the shells remain pliable and easier to remove. Because the nuts are easier to work with while warm, do it in batches.
Shell and peel chestnuts up to 3 days in advance and keep them refrigerated. They also freeze beautifully for months.
Chestnut lovers, what do you do with them? How do you eat them?