There are few greater hallmarks of winter’s arrival than the frigid winds of December or the omnipresent sound of Christmas carols filling the air wherever you go. Every store you walk in and every commercial you hear reminds you that the holiday season is officially here. It is the classic carols that always get me with warm feelings and a curiously building hunger as I hear a nostalgia-laden chorus sing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, jack frost nipping at your nose.”
You can keep the jack frost, but mmmm, roasted chestnuts, I can almost smell them now. If you aren’t familiar with the chestnut, you really should take the opportunity of the holiday season to seek them out and give them a try. No doubt you’ll be singing delicious refrains soon.
Some might be familiar with the chestnut in one form or another. It has been around for centuries and grows in temperate climates across the globe. Chestnuts are a bit different from many of the classic nuts we consume in that they are dense in starches and sugars rather than fats, thus giving them a sweeter flavor with fewer calories than something like a peanut or almond. You can even find beautiful local specimens, either already hulled or in their natural, spiny casing. I always refer to them as “Missouri sea urchin,” as their casing bears a striking resemblance to that spike-laden, creamy-fleshed treasure of the sea.
Chestnuts are eaten around the world in a variety of ways, but many of the common methods of preparation and presentation involve cooking or roasting them in some manner, or even candying them, as is often found in France. In many countries like Italy you are likely to find the unique warmth and sweet smell of a batch of chestnuts roasting as you walk the city roads. Chestnuts make a perfect street food in places like Rome, where vendors line the palazzos and set up near fountains with nothing more than a burner and a large cooking vessel to tenderize and cook chestnuts for eager tourists and locals alike.
I can remember a cold night in Rome, having walked all day, navigating the narrow alleys near the Pantheon. Just as I turned a corner, the smell of chestnuts filled my nose as my eyes gazed upon that glorious relic of the ancient world. I can still smell and taste them on the tip of my tongue just thinking about it.
That sweet smell of roasting chestnuts is easy enough to replicate in your own home. You can buy the already-hulled nut, and with a slight score of the skin and a roast in the oven, you will have a perfect roasted chestnut ready for any of your holiday dishes that need a sweet, starchy punch. If you want to forgo that process, you will miss the intoxicating aroma but can save the hassle and buy vacuum-packed chestnuts already roasted.
Chestnuts play well with tastes all over the sweet and savory spectrum. I like to toss them in stuffings for savory dishes like roasted birds, or roast them and top sweets like stuffed crepes or ice cream with their subtly sweet flavors. However you want to get them or cook them, chestnuts will make a fantastic addition to holiday recipes.Roasted Butternut Squash Barley Risotto with Roasted Chestnuts Serves four
This decadent but healthy vegan whole grain risotto is one that captures the best parts of sweet and savory found in both butternut squash and chestnuts. The barley becomes tender but toothsome and gives the dish that creamy, unctuous texture of classic risotto. You can play around with garnishes if you want with everything from fresh fruit to a nice cheese or strips of roasted squash. This recipe can be served as a main or side dish.1 cup pearled barley 1 medium sized butternut squash ½ cup coconut milk ½ pound roasted chestnuts 4-6 cups vegetable stock, homemade or store bought, or water 1 medium onion, chopped 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 teaspoon turmeric 1 teaspoon fresh ginger Whole nutmeg, for grating at end Bourbon maple syrup reduction, or just maple syrup, to finish 1 teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon, flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut butternut squash in half and place cut side down on an oiled baking sheet, roast for 30-40 minutes until tender. Scoop flesh out of skin and puree or mash with coconut milk. Reserve puree. In a medium sized Dutch oven or large saucepan, sauté onion and ginger until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add turmeric, 1 teaspoon of salt and barley, stir to coat grains in oil and cook 2-3 minutes. Add 2-3 cups vegetable stock to cover grains and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer 40-45 minutes on low, adding 1 cup of stock at a time to keep grains covered. When grains are tender and mixture is thickened and creamy textured but still slightly loose, stir in squash puree. To plate, ladle barley risotto into bowls and top with a handful of roasted chestnuts, a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg and a light drizzle of the Maple syrup. If desired, finish each dish with a sprinkle of flaky sea salt for a delicious sweet and salty contrast.