Eats: The truth about those roasted chestnuts

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This colorful wild rice pilaf with chestnuts is the perfect accompaniment to pork, wild game, turkey or duck.

Roast away. But these tips for making this ‘tricky’ treat will keep you ho-ho-ho-ing through the holiday.

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose . . .”

Every time I hear “The Christmas Song” written in 1945 by Mel Torme and Bob Wells, I think of New York City street vendors, passages from Louisa May Alcott’s novels, and Currier & Ives paintings. Snow and sleigh bells, warmth and holiday cheer — these are the visions in my brain, seguing to fantasies of my own family gathered around the hearth as we merrily pop toasty chestnuts into our mouths and sip egg nog sprinkled with nutmeg . . .

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The truth is, for all the many years I’ve conjured up these images, I’ve never even tasted a chestnut. But finally, my curiosity has gotten the better of me and I decided to take the plunge. So if you, too, have had munching roasted chestnuts on your bucket list, read on.

As romantic and simplistic as it may seem from all the lovely stories you’ve ever read and the songs you have ever sung, roasting chestnuts on “an open fire” can actually be quite tricky.

First, make sure you have edible chestnuts. Horse chestnuts are toxic, so either buy your “sweet” chestnuts from a store or make sure your source knows the difference. There’s plenty of information on the web, but even then, as with anything that can harm you, check several different sources.

Before placing the nuts in a grilling basket, you must cut a big, deep “X” on the flat side of each chestnut with a sharp knife. Once they are in the hot seat, you’ll want to watch them like a hawk, gently turning and testing them until they can be pierced easily with a fork.

I have to admit it’s much more practical and safer to just preheat the oven to 400 degrees, make the X’s and place the chestnuts on a baking sheet on the center rack to roast until they feel tender, about 25 minutes. No matter what method you use for roasting them, the roasted nuts need to then be peeled with a paring knife while they’re still quite warm, also removing the inner brown skin. If you have difficulty, put them back in the oven for a few minutes or warm them in the microwave for 30 to 60 seconds.

Chestnuts are really quite an anomaly. Inside the tough housing of this quirky nut is a mild morsel that has a consistency somewhere between a mushroom and a not-quite-baked potato. I find it challenging to compare the taste to anything I’ve ever eaten before. There is definitely an earthiness but also a surprising sweetness.

If you like them and want to go beyond just eating them out-of-hand, chestnuts impart another layer of texture and flavor to many cold-weather comfort food combos that contain squash, root vegetables, apples and wild game. For centuries, chestnuts have been incorporated into stuffing and served on the plate as a vegetable, joining forces with Brussels sprouts or broccoli. Another way to serve them is to boil them (don’t forget the “X”) before putting them through a ricer and stirring in cream and butter as you would mashed potatoes.

Chestnuts also are at the heart of a creamy soup often served in swanky restaurants, and can also star in many desserts. Besides making chestnut puree, you can completely transform chestnuts by grinding them into gluten-free flour. If you’re already a fan of chestnut’s distinct flavor, there are recipes for puddings, cakes, crepes, ice cream and even tiramisu using this “vegetable that grows on trees.”

Both Hannaford and Shaw’s have chestnuts in their produce departments this time of year. When purchasing chestnuts, keep in mind that 1 and 1/4 pounds yield 1 and 1/2 cups of peeled nutmeats. Be sure to buy a bit extra because it’s really difficult to tell if all the nuts are good ones just by looking at them. You’ll want to give each one a good pinch to ensure they’re nice and firm.

If you think roasting and peeling chestnuts is all a lot of fuss and bother, you’re right. But if you still want to sample them, you’ll be thrilled to know they are available peeled, roasted and vacuumed-packed at some specialty stores, Whole Foods and on Amazon. You may even come upon them in a can or jar.

The consistency of the product is a bit different but I didn’t detect any variation in taste. These prepared nuts can be used in a recipe as is, or roasted in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes to deepen the flavor, which I highly recommend. Chestnut puree, chestnuts in sweet syrup and chestnut flour are also available.

The recipe I’m sharing today is for those readers who want to give chestnuts a whirl without fully committing. Think of it as sticking your big toe in to check the temperature of the water. By adding these interesting little nuggets to a dish where they can mingle and mix with many winter flavors, you can gently introduce your palate to this new-to-you taste.

Wild winter rice can be served straight from the saucepan, prepared ahead and re-heated later in a casserole dish, stuffed into wild fowl or spooned into the hollows of an acorn squash.

Be sure to have “The Christmas Song” playing in the background while you prepare this dish, and better yet, be singing along at the top of your lungs.

And although it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you all!

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for 20 years. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

These ingredients are ready to be combined to make a unique and tasty side dish for a winter meal.

Winter wild rice with chestnuts

Serves 8

2 cups wild rice

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cup chestnuts, roasted, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup cranberry raisins or dried cherries

1/2 cup dried apricots, quartered

1/2 cup figs, halved (optional)

1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted

4 tablespoons butter or olive oil

1/2 cup each diced celery, carrots and onions

1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

1/2 to 1 tablespoon each minced fresh sage and thyme

2 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Place dried fruit in a bowl and cover with boiling water so the fruit will re-hydrate while rice is cooking.

Combine rice, stock, water and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then simmer over low heat until rice is tender, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute vegetables in butter or oil until softened. Add herbs and saute for 1 minute more.

Pour off and discard any remaining liquid from the fruit. Add both the rice and the fruit to the vegetables in saute pan. Add chestnuts, toasted nuts, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Gently combine.

If you are preparing ahead, the rice mixture can also be spooned into a greased casserole, covered and stored in the refrigerator up to two days. Reheat in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes.

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