One of my fondest memories as a child growing up in Hungary in the 1950s was hearing the street vendors' cry: "Fresh, hot marron chestnuts!" My sister and I would beg our parents to buy us each a bagful of the sweet-tasting treats. They came wrapped in a funnel cone of newspaper, tip pinched, and filled to the brim with chestnuts, fresh off the coals.
These days, chestnut street vendors are not as common. You might only see them in major cities, like New York, during the fall and early winter chestnut season.
But fresh chestnuts are too delicious to miss. Their season is short, peaking in November and December. Unlike most nuts, chestnuts perish quickly and require careful handling. For these reasons, it's important to know a little about them before you buy some and try roasting them yourself.
Chestnuts are like seafood - they have to be eaten fresh to taste good. When buying them, make sure they're bright and shiny on the outside. They should feel plump, completely filling their smooth, cinnamon-brown outer shell. If you hear a rattle, toss the nut back.
Chestnuts are starchy, moisture-rich, and they spoil fast. The nutmeat is more mealy, like a potato, rather than crunchy like a traditional nut. Refrigerate chestnuts in your vegetable drawer as soon as you return from the market. Plan to use them within a week or two. They need moisture to prevent drying out, but not so much that molds get a chance to grow.
A closed paper bag or a partially opened plastic bag is a good way to prolong their freshness.
The best chestnuts, called marrons, are native to southern Europe and grow along the Mediterranean coast. These are the most common variety sold in US grocery stores and are ideal for roasting.
A close relative to the marron, the Chinese chestnut, is cultivated in mild climates in Asia. The American chestnut used to grow in the Eastern part of the United States until a massive blight wiped out most chestnut trees here during the first half of the 1900s. Now blight-resistant European and Asian strains are replacing the American native.
Uncooked chestnuts taste acidic - like raw sweet potatoes. Don't eat them raw. A week or so after the nuts are harvested, the starch inside changes into sugar, so after roasting, the nutmeat is tender and sweet.
In France and Italy, where chestnuts are plentiful in the autumn, they are used as a rich side dish slathered with butter or drizzled with olive oil. But in America, most people still enjoy them the old- fashioned way.
Recipes for hot roasted chestnuts
1 pound fresh chestnuts in the shell
Chestnuts are like popcorn kernels, with a tough shell that traps moisture. And like popcorn, chestnuts will explode if you don't slit their shells before roasting. Use the point of a paring knife to cut a large "X" into the flat side of the shell to let the steam escape. Be sure to cut through the skin. The cooking methods below yield about 2-1/2 cups, enough to serve four.
Note: Do not use a microwave oven. The chestnuts' texture is likely to turn gummy.
For this method, it's best to use a chestnut roaster, a cagelike device with a long handle specially designed for use in the fireplace. After slitting X's in the chestnuts, place them in the roaster and hold it over hot coals. Roast chestnuts for 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the roaster from time to time.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. After scoring them, place chestnuts in a single layer in a baking pan and sprinkle generously with water. Roast 17 to 20 minutes, or until the X-cut opens up and the shell begins to char. Continue to sprinkle water over chestnuts as they bake to prevent them from drying out. Stir occasionally.
Peel both the shell and the skin off the roasted chestnuts while they are still hot. (If they cool so much that the shell won't easily come off, reheat them briefly.)
Serve fresh from the oven because their flavor declines as they stand; they are always at their best when hot.
Heat a heavy sauté pan for one minute. When it's hot, add chestnuts in a single layer, sprinkle with a small amount of water, and cover the pan. Medium-high heat works best. Shake the pan often and continue to sprinkle with water, until shells begin to char and the X-cut opens up. Cooking time: about 10 minutes. After chestnuts are cooked, remove them from the pan and wrap them in a tea towel to retain moisture. Peel and eat as soon as they are cool enough to handle.