Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chronicles of my stupid food addictions no. 1: Chestnuts

"And if you have nuts on the wall, are they walnuts?"
"Yes son."
"And if you have nuts on your chest, are they chestnuts?"
"No, son--that means you have a dick in your mouth"
-misquoted from Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle

I don't know why exactly, but when I came to New York I started getting possessed by the notion of eating, and thus of course roasting, chestnuts. I had tried to procure the little buggers in California from an Italian specialty store slash upscale deli with fancy submarine sandwiches, but they were expensive and moldy. Not impressive OR tasty. Plus it never gets cold enough in that part of the country (eastern edge of Los Angeles county) to give you that Jack frost nipping at your nose cozy fireplace feeling.

The first roasted chestnuts I ate were off a hot dog cart somewhere around Moma, in Midtown Manhattan, wanna say high fifties. They cost something like four dollars for a little brown bringing my lunch to school bag. It was the middle of autumn, I think--late October or early Novemeber, around there--and my fingers were just starting to feel cold after being outside a little while. It was the time of year when you first smell football, is the only way I can explain it. Anyway, there was the little bag rolled back to reveal dark brown nuggets that looked like oversized hazelnuts, but puffed out with their nutmeat (always wanted to use that word in an entry) beckoning forth from the cracked open hull. They looked like little molting eyeballs. They looked delicious.

My greedy semi-numb fingers rooted around in the bag and thawed in the steam. I plucked one out, popped it open, and rolled into my hand something that resembled a shrunked baboon brain: this dark brown wrinkly thing. Oh well, I still had the fancy song dancing in my head and was feeling so "right" for the season, so I soldiered on and ate the thing. Or tried to. Really, really gross--kind of like eating a burnt dried out sponge. Not just dry, but drying--I could actually feel my saliva being sucked out of my mouth trying to digest this thing.

Somehow this experience enchanted me, probably because I got one that hadn't been vulcanized, and I needed more instantly. Lots of things surprised me when I ate a non-nasty chestnut. One, they're mushy, not crunchy. The texture of chestnuts is a lot like baked potato, and the whole thing is more starch than protein (turns out chestnuts aren't really nuts at all, but whatever). Two, they taste vaguely like sweet potatoes, kind of mellow and roundly sweet, so you can treat them like a root vegetable rather than you would a nut in cooking. Three, they can be an absolute /bitch/ to peel if you don't roast them perfectly.

I've tried to roast chestnuts in about eight thousand different ways, including the Bing Crosby-approved method of on an open fire (I wrapped them up in tinfoil and stashed them inside an old woodstove in a cabin up in the woods of upstate NY. It didn't work--burnt the shit out of them), and have done it more wrong than right. But I think I've finally go the hang of it, and wanted to share on the off-chance you too found yourself with a hankering or sudden unexpected surplus of raw chestnuts. Side-note: this was more likely to happen a hundred years ago in America, where tons and tons of native chestnut trees used to flourish from Maine to the Midwest. But then a massive blight took em out in the early 1900s, and mostly our supply is now imported from Italy.

The trick to roasting chestnuts well is avoiding drying them out. Dried out chestnuts taste like ass, which I know I've already covered but want to confirm and kind of cathartically release. The best way to keep from drying them out is making sure the heat's not too high on the one hand and there's plenty of moisture for them to suck up on other other. Use a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan or whatever you call it and pour enough water in there to keep the chestnut bottoms wet. It all dries up in the oven soon anyway, so don't be skimpy. Then, with the heat, don't go above 350 degrees, otherwise they'll turn into moon pebbles and taste like ass.

Other than that the standard procedure is simple and excessively tedious. You take a pointy knife and make a slit or x in each one, making sure to keep the flatter side face down on the cutting board so you don't roll the nut while stabbing it and slice the top of your thumb off. Once they're done roasting in the oven, which takes maybe 20 minutes to half an hour, you get the treat, if you want to eat or use them warm, of trying to pop them open. There is no good trick I've found with cracking and peeling chestnuts except to say stay more gentle and patient than the Dalai Lama, no matter how many times you smoosh them into a pulp inside their skin, rendering half the thing inaccessible and useless, or how many times the inner furry skin which really, really tastes like ass won't peel off and gets lodged in tiny flecks in the many cerebral cortex-like wrinkles that line the nut. One thing I can say is "pop" the nut by squeezing it top to bottom, not side to side, as that reduces the smoosh factor. From there it's all about having the dexterity of raccoon paws, something I've always prided myself in after having my delicate wrinkleless French-canadian digits referred to as "aristocratic". Chestnuts proved to be my upper limit of fine finger motions, however.

Yet I'm still drawn to them. I've used them in stuffings many times--in turkey breast, in a goose--I've tossed them up in a saute with brussels sprouts (add some sausage, turn it out over polenta, and it's a main course) and I just made a soup with broth from rehydrated porcini mushrooms and parsnips and carrots that's thickened by adding chestnuts to the mix and pureeing the whole mess (recipe can be found here). I've even heard you can make gnocchi out of them, which makes sense given that you usually use potatotes, but I haven't tried that one yet. I can't really recommend using them, though they are warmly satisfying in taste and texture, perfect for when the thermometer loses all red from its reading, and who knows? Maybe you have a mascohistic streak in you as well. They're hard to find, expensive, and a bitch to use--chestnuts, you are my debutante living in the house on the hill, you are my Edie Sedgewick, you are my cowboy on brokeback mountain. I wish I could quit you!


copperpot said...

I want to ask you one question. If I had some nuts, hanging on the wall,
what would I have honey? I said, "Darlin, you'd have some walnuts!" She
said, "Well, Daddy, if I had some nuts on my chest would those be chestnuts?"
I said "Hell yeah." She said, "Well, Daddy, if I had some nuts on my chin
would those be chin nuts?" I said "Hell no bitch, you'd have a dick in your

Naveed said...

misquoted from the wrong source too, it's actually from dre's "the chronic"