FARGO – Christmas in America just might not be Christmas in America if we didn’t hear Nat King Cole crooning “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” from our radio speakers nearly every day. According to Digital Music News, “The Christmas Song” is the fifth most played Christmas song every year. (Fun fact: the top four are “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Let it Snow.”)
But as you sing along to Nat every year, have you ever asked yourself why you haven’t ever roasted chestnuts on an open fire? Maybe you have and – for that – I commend you. In our house, if there’s an open fire, we’re usually making s’mores.
This year, I decided to give the graham crackers, Hershey bars and marshmallows the night off and try chestnuts. If you can believe it, I have never eaten a chestnut. According to historians, they’ve been popular during Christmas time since the 1500s when vendors in Rome sold them on the streets. That tradition continues today in bigger cities where vendors sell warm chestnuts wrapped in newspaper.
So how do you go about roasting chestnuts?
You have many options depending upon what you prefer. With all of these methods, start by rinsing the chestnuts and cutting (or scoring) an “X” in either end of the chestnuts. Different recipes suggest one side or the other, but the key is to cut the “X” somewhere to avoid the chestnut exploding. There are even special chestnut knives to help you score the shell, but a sharp knife works just fine. After rinsing and cutting the nut, it’s a good idea to soak them for a couple of minutes in hot water to soften the shell. From there, choose your method. For each method, we’ll work with approximately one pound of chestnuts.
Roasting on an open fire
Authentic roasting on an open fire is pretty basic. Take the rinsed, scored and soaked chestnuts and put them in a cast iron pan or a special chestnut roaster. (Amazon is full of inexpensive roasters.) Place the nuts in the pan or roaster and make sure to move the nuts around to get an even roast. Roast for 3 to 5 minutes and remove from fire. Turn the nuts over for even roasting. Roast for another few minutes until the shell pulls slightly away from the nut. Remove from pan, let cool slightly. Peel and enjoy.
Put rinsed, scored and soaked nuts on a broiler pan on the top rack of the oven. Place under the broiler, cut side up and broil on low for 10 minutes. Be careful not to burn the nuts.
After rinsing, scoring and soaking the nuts in water, coat them in about ¼ cup of vegetable oil. Heat a skillet, low to medium heat. Place chestnuts in pan. Cover and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. After the 15 minutes, add water and continue to cook until water evaporates and the shell begins to pull away from the nut – approximately 10 minutes.
Really pressed for time? Microwaving is a good option. Take rinsed, scored and soaked chestnuts and microwave for 1 to 2 minutes until tender.
These methods are just the beginning. You can also steam and grill chestnuts. I found a nice tutorial from a guy named Meathead at Amazing Ribs.com. Apparently, Meathead knows as much about nut meat as hot dogs, burgers and steak. Boiling chestnuts is also an option, but not recommended as the boiled nuts can be hard to peel.
I opted to try a recipe from a site called Nutmeg Nanny. (I think I need to adopt a cool nickname…let’s work on that.) The title – more than anything – attracted me, “Spice Butter Roasted Chestnuts.” Yummers. It’s an oven roasted method that worked pretty well and left me with a nice spicy, butter dipping sauce. I found the nuts took longer to cook than the recommended 30 minutes, so I amended the recipe a bit. Watch the video to see how to do it.
Side note: the nuts peeled pretty easily, but I had a nasty surprise when the first nut I peeled had black mold inside. Apparently, this is pretty common when you buy chestnuts this late in the season. Throw those away. Most of the chestnuts in the bag I got from the grocery store were just fine. (FYI: I got mine in the chilled produce section right near the cranberries).
I was surprised by the texture of the chestnuts – less like a crunchy nut and more like a creamy baked potato. Maybe that’s why they’re so popular with butter. After all these years, I’m glad I tried this centuries old Christmas tradition. But if I’m being completely honest, I still like s’mores more.
“S’mores roasting on an open fire…” Hmm. I think that’s got a ring to it.
Spice Butter Roasted Chestnuts
1 pound fresh chestnuts
1 bowl of hot water
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon apple pie spice*
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a sharp knife, score an “X” on the rounded top of the chestnuts – cutting through the shell but not deep into the nut. Once the nuts are cut, soak them in a bowl of hot water for 2 minutes. Lay out a large piece of foil onto a rimmed baking sheet. Gather up the edges to make a wall. Place the chestnuts (flat side down, “X” side up) inside the foil. Try not to overlap. Add melted butter and spices in a bowl and mix to combine.
Pour ½ butter and spice mixture over chestnuts and roast for approximately 30 to45 minutes until the shells are curved back and the meaty flesh is exposed.
Peel while still warm and dip in butter sauce.
*McCormick sells an Apple Pie Spice, but I couldn’t find it. So I made my own my mixing 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of nutmeg and ½ teaspoon of cardamom.
Recipe altered slightly from Nutmeg Nanny