Here’s the trick: Cutting and cooking with Chestnuts

One of our favorite stops along the Apple trail at Apple Hill is Smokey Ridge Ranch. The third generation, family-owned ranch opened in 1924 and while they have plenty of apples to sample this time of year (up to 10 varieties), we appreciate them for what else they have to offer amid all of the apple options: house-made charcuterie and patés, jams and jellies, and chestnuts. (And one day we’re going to spend more time looking around… their property also includes sections of the Pony Express and abandoned mine sites. Intriguing!)

As for the chestnuts, theirs is one of the few places I’ve been to where you can pick your own! (Just watch out for the prickly skins. Hudson tripped and landed on one with his palm and the fun was quickly over. Ouch!) At one point, chestnuts were grown all over the country; but in the first half of the 20th century, nearly four billion trees fell prey to Chestnut blight. The demand for chestnuts is still greater than the supply.

For me, they’re a hallmark of the holiday season. Not just at Christmas (when you think of them thanks to Nat King Cole and street vendors roasting them the world over), but also in the fall when I start thinking about chestnut soup and Thanksgiving stuffing. The trick is getting that delicious nut-meat out of the shell…

We’ve tried a few methods. A quick glance around the web will yield lots of options (scoring the shell with an x before roasting, using a special perforated roasting pan, soaking the scored nuts before cooking, and even using the microwave).

But we’ve found the simplest way is to just give up on the ideal of a single round piece of nut meat and be content with two perfect halves: just slice the whole nut in half and place the exposed side face-down on a baking sheet, and bake them at 375 degrees for roughly 15 minutes. So much safer than risking your fingers with slippery x-scores, and so much easier to peel once they come out of the oven. And, frankly, most of the recipes requiring chestnuts don’t require an intact nut, so you end up  slicing them anyway!

Here’s the key: you have to work fast. The nuts will be hot, hot, hot, so grab a paper towel if your finger-tips can’t take it, but peel them while they’re fresh out of the oven! The more they cool, the harder it gets. It’s a good family job: “all hands on deck!”

P.S. Chestnut season is actually the fall, not winter. In Rome, we ate delicious candied chestnuts. And, funny fact: in Corsica, regional specialties include chestnut liqueur and charcuterie of pigs fed entirely on chestnut meal; in the 16th century, all Corsican landowners were required to plant chestnut, fig, olive, and mulberry trees annually!

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