By Chelsea Fisher
The Holidays begin when the street vendors in New York City start selling hot roasted chestnuts. In season from October through late December, delicious chestnuts are a holiday classic, with songs written about them to boot. With twice as much starch as a potato, chestnuts lend themselves to being a wonderful comfort food to eat right out of the oven, in soups, and desserts too.
Chestnuts have other benefits besides their cheerful reputation. They are lower in calories and fat than other nuts, and are good sources of copper and magnesium, both of which are important for healthy tissue development and growth. Chestnuts are the only nut to provide vitamin C, an important attribute for a cold weather food, and always important for those in treatment trying to stay healthy through the winter.
If you’ve ever noticed that chestnuts can make your mouth feel dry, it’s likely due to the tannins. Chestnuts are very high in tannins and should never be eaten raw. Cooking and peeling them solves this problem.
When buying whole chestnuts, make sure the nut has a glossy deep brown surface with no obvious wormholes or dents. They should be heavy for their size, very hard, and not rattle around in the shell. Generally speaking it’s more cost–effective to buy the whole nut to cook with, but there’s lengthy prep involved. If you have the time and the energy to deal with them, buy fresh chestnuts, if you don’t, check out the alternatives we give in our recipe tips below.
Roasting chestnuts in an oven or over an open fire is how we usually think of cooking and eating them, but chestnuts are the star ingredients in delicious fall dishes across many cuisines, including those of France, Italy, Spain and Japan. To get into the spirit of the winter season, try our creamy Chestnut Soup, or our comforting Chestnut Rice.
Prepping chestnuts for cooking can be a fiddly task since they need to be baked or boiled, and then peeled before using. It’s the peeling that tends to take the time. Whether boiling or baking, it is important to first cut a deep cross with a sharp knife into the top of each chestnut’s shell to prevent them from exploding open during cooking.
Luckily for us, there are ways to enjoy cooking with chestnuts without this prep process. The French, who use chestnuts widely in the Fall, have solved the prep problem for us with bags and jars of vacuum packed pre-cooked and peeled chestnuts that are interchangeable with fresh. These are available in most specialty food stores during the Holiday season. If you can’t find them, look for either cans of unsweetened chestnut puree, or for dried chestnuts, which will be ready for use after soaking overnight.