Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Roasting Chestnuts

Apparently I've watch "A Christmas Carol" too many times already this year and am dying to try a real Dicken's Christmas Feast. I've never had Goose, Fruit Punch, Plum Pudding, or Roasted Chestnuts. Are they as amazing and necessary to a happy family Christmas as the Christmas Carols make them look? Well in my attempt to try out these exotic holiday foods, I've started with Roasted Chestnuts since they are the easiest (and happened to spot some at the supermarket the other day.) At the supermarket I went carefully through the chestnuts to pick out about a dozen good looking ones (dark, smooth, and no holes or openings in the shells.) Sizewise I'd say they were about 1 1/2 to 2 inches. When I got home I threw the bag on top of the fridge and forgot about them. Then come the eve of Christmas Day, we're sitting by a crackling fire and I realize, "Hey, we've got chestnuts we can roast on the fire!" So I search for instructions on how to roast them and take down the bag of chestnuts. First thing I realize is that we don't have any container to put them in that we could put in the fire. We have some wire cage to grill fish in but didn't look like it would work for the chestnuts. So went with plan B and roasted them in the oven. Turned the oven on to preheat at 375 degrees. Used my paring knife to make little X's on the top of the nut. (Realized just before putting them in the oven that I didn't break the nut skin with my knife so had to go over them again to ensure the shells actually all had a hole or opening in them.) Put them in the oven for 20 minutes on a stoneware tray. Checked it at 20 minutes and it looked like only one chestnut had actually "popped" open the X slit. So put it in for 5 minutes more. The house started to smell like burning popcorn so removed them from the oven right before the 5 minutes were up. Let them cool down a bit then began to open them. First off I realized that I should have made bigger X's on my chestnuts - the little tiny X's mad it hard to get the shell off. I opened a chestnut and inside was this wrinkly, unappealing-looking white thing. Also had to carefully remove some of the skin from inside the folds of the nut. We all tried a bite. Although it didn't look burnt I thought it had a light taste of burnt popcorn. The texture was very much like a potato and someone else also thought it tasted like a potato. The aftertaste of the chestnut was not starchy like a potato though... sort of surprisingly rich and a little buttery or fatty. We tried to eat a few more but I found that on some of the chestnuts I must not have roasted them long enough because the inside skin stuck to the nut. The inside skin of the nut is dark and a little feathery.

I think Chestnuts must be something you either grow up with or are an aquired taste. Maybe I'd like them more in a recipe. I didn't hate them though... I think it's a food that I'd have to eat a few more times to decide if I like it. However from now on whenever reading about (or even now writing about) roasted chestnuts, I'll always experience a phantom whiff of burnt popcorn.

Ps. After my chestnut roasting experience, I did some research on chestnuts and found out some interesting things. For example in Europe (Italy and France) there were huge populations that were sustained most of the year on just chestnuts before and during the middle ages. They made them into soups & also ground the chestnuts into flour to make breads and other foods out of chestnut since wheat was not as common for poor people to have access to back then. Also one website claimed that it was a food much used by Alexander the Great's army. Apparently chestnuts are less common today due to some harsh winters in Europe a few hundreds of years ago, the opinion that allowing the poor to subsist off of chestnuts made them lazy and feel like they did not need to work hard for their food, and also more recent diseases that wiped out most chestnut trees in America. I did find a company that will actually sell you blight-resistant chinese chestnut trees saplings if you want to plant a pair in your backyard or on your farm so you can harvest your own edible chestnuts in 5-7 years.

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