The story of the chestnut is a familiar one: An American native, it has been all but wiped out during the past century. The invader: A foreign blight. These days, very few people have seen a true American Chestnut tree -- but thanks to Nat King Cole and The Christmas Song, roasted chestnuts are still a romanticized element in our holiday celebrations. And though you may not have an open fire to roast them over, you can still live out that romantic celebration with home-roasted chestnuts. As it turns out, the roasting part is easy; finding the chestnuts will be your biggest challenge.
Hunting for Nuts
Chestnuts are a fall crop. Thanks to the ongoing chestnut blight, the biggest growers are in Europe and China. That means, from the time your chestnut falls to the forest floor, it sits for several weeks in a warehouse or cargo hold before it reaches your grocer. Worse, chestnuts are fragile and require constant refrigeration. What you find on your store shelves today may be a far cry from the ideal: mushy, moldy and simply unappealing nuts.
The simplest solution: Go get your own. If you happen to know of a chestnut grove, you can gather your own right off the ground during the autumn. Of course, you won't find many in December. But if you live in the Eastern United States, you can probably find a local grower who's been storing chestnuts for just this occasion. You might even be able to order some for delivery; try Samascott in New York, Empire Chestnut in Ohio, Forest Agriculture in Wisconsin, or Chestnut Charlie's in Kansas.
Last resort: Chestnuts in a jar. Yes, they will probably be in better shape than the ones from the grocery store. Just watch out for added chemicals used to preserve them.
The Perfect Roast
Once you've obtained those lovely chestnuts, the roasting part is easy. Using a sharp knife, cut an X in the rounded end (this keeps them from exploding as they heat up). Bake them at 425 degrees for at least 15 to 20 minutes, up to 35 minutes for very large nuts. You'll know they're done when the shells burst open and the nuts inside are golden brown.
Peel and enjoy your roasted chestnuts with a glass of red wine, or try pureeing them for a rich, starchy chestnut soup.
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