I knew the song of course, but I had never done this or seen this done until this year. A few weeks ago we were at a craft fair, where my friend Annie was outside roasting chestnuts on a gas grill. She grows them about 50 miles from me in an orchard that she herself planted 16 years ago. It has been a labor of love for this is the first year she has gotten a crop big enough to sell any. A die hard fan, she brought them from Italy, and I have to say, I am completely sold! I stood there watching and helping her for about an hour just enthralled by what she was doing. This is what I learned:
First off, chestnuts are picky and will go bad rather quickly. Most often people who don't like chestnuts have had a bad one that tasted bitter and gross. Chestnuts really like damp and cold temperatures to stay good and sweet. Annie says the nuts that stay under the leaf litter in the chestnut orchard are the ones that stay good for the longest... but a fridge crisper drawer with the fruit (highest setting of moisture) is good as well and will keep them for several weeks.
Too cook them, you need to first score the skins like this:
Then put them in a wire basket and agitate them over an open flame until the skins start to come off. This happens on their own. Like popcorn. You will see sparks, hear pops, and then you will see free chestnut meats rolling around in your basket. When more are free than not, it is time to stop roasting them. (I got this wire basket from Value Village for $1.99, it is an old basket from a deep fat fryer... one trip through a hot dishwasher, and I was ready to put it over the flames.)
This is what they look like when they are done roasting:
Then comes the pealing. Be careful! They are hot. ;) The meats taste like sweet potatoes. Not what we call 'yams', but the actual yellow sweet potato. They have a nutty flavor and taste as though they are already lightly sweet and perfectly salted when roasted. I would have eaten many of them as soon as I skinned them had I not had better plans.
Here is my beautiful skinning helper with our heaping plate of chestnut meats.
2 lbs fresh chestnuts in the hull
3 lg bulbs fennel
3 lg shallots
5 Tbs butter
salt and pepper to taste
Saute the fennel and the shallots in the butter until they start to go clear. Add the chestnut meats and agitate frequently until piping hot. Salt and pepper to taste.
It was an amazing side dish for our Thanksgiving feast!
This is what traditions are made of.