Just over a century ago, forests of mighty, 100-foot chestnut trees blanketed the eastern part of the United States. A generation and a half later, blight had wiped them out. By 1946, when Nat King Cole sang about making the season bright in “The Christmas Song,” 3.5 billion trees had died, and roasting chestnuts was just a distant memory for many.
Thanks to decades of effort, the American chestnut is poised for a return. And so, too, the song may soon recall more than a nostalgic activity of our past. While smaller chestnut varieties have been available for years from Italy and Asia, domestic chestnuts are becoming increasingly available, finding their way to many supermarkets this time of year. Chestnuts will keep for several weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator or several months in the freezer. The mellow, earthy flavor of root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes or parsnips, are naturals with chestnuts. Or just eat them warm right from the roasting pan with a mug of hot cocoa.
If you can’t get fresh chestnuts, the jarred variety will work fine in these recipes. And that’s something to sing about.
Shelling: Cut them in half, place in the microwave in a covered dish, and microwave on high 70 seconds. Let cool slightly before peeling. One pound of unshelled chestnuts will yield about 2 1⁄2 cups shelled.
Roasting: Prep: Cut an X on the flat side of each chestnut with a sharp paring knife.
Fire-Roasting: Place chestnuts in a grill pan or chestnut roaster and gently shake over a fire about 15 minutes.
Oven-Roasting: Place chestnuts in a shallow baking pan. Roast 20 minutes at 350F, or until corners of X’s curl up.
Peeling after roasting: While warm, remove outer shell. To remove papery skin, roll chestnuts in a clean dish towel and rub off the skin.