The Christmas Song
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose….”
~ Torme and Wells
My knowledge of chestnuts is forever colored by the work of two men: my grandfather and Johnny Mathis.
Johnny Mathis provided the atmosphere. When I was small my mother had a collection of Firestone and Goodyear Christmas Albums featuring popular performers from the 1960’s: Tony Bennett, Julie Andrews, Andy Williams and Barbara Streisand among others. I can still hear the exact inflection of Maurice Chevalier singing Jolly Old St. Nicholas, one of my favorites.
Those albums also introduced me to the silken strains of Johnny Mathis delivering a golden version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”. In his accomplished voice I could feel the warmth of a holiday fire, the welcome of family celebrations and the wonder of the season. In that opening line chestnuts were forever polished with the glow of all that is beautiful about Christmases past.
While Johnny Mathis wrapped the word 'chestnuts' in dulcet tones it was my grandfather who introduced me to the experience of chestnuts and their sweet earthy flavor. Just the sight of chestnuts can take me back, crunching through the fallen leaves as I walk across my grandparents' farm wearing a big corduroy coat someone has put on me. The sleeves are too long and the tan fabric smells of the breath of farm animals and of eggs gathered from the hen house.
Past the horses and chickens, back to where the interstate cut across the farmland making a good portion of the property difficult to reach, chestnuts and persimmons grew. Every autumn those chestnuts were gathered by the bagful. Curious, I once asked for one. Pappaw cut into it with his pocket knife and gave it to me. I peeled away the brown shell. Beneath that was a fuzzy skin clinging to the nut. I probably peeled that too. The nut itself was a little soft and very convoluted with a deep rib, much like a pecan or walnut but with the nut meat clinging more closely to the rib and holding on. The meat of the raw chestnut tasted mildly sweet and almost crisp, unlike other nuts. Back at the house, Mammaw gave us a lunch sack full to take home. Pappaw sold the excess for a good price to local markets.
A Holiday Treat
Now whenever I see chestnuts for sale it brings a smile to my lips. I hear Johnny Mathis and smell the cool autumn air on Pappaw’s farm. I reach out and hold one for a moment, then choose a few, looking them over carefully to make sure they are clean and have a nice weight and color.
Chestnuts can be peeled and eaten as is, but roasting them deepens the flavor and adds its own charm while making them somewhat easier to peel, at least while the nuts are quite warm. As a slowly savored snack accompanied by your favorite seasonal beverage, chestnuts add enchantment to a quiet evening. So put on some Johnny Mathis, light a fire and settle in for a festive holiday treat.
Preheat oven to 400F.
Buy chestnuts from reliable vendors or gather them from a known source. Edible chestnuts look much like horse chestnuts and buckeyes, both of which are toxic. After finding a good source, choose chestnuts that are smooth and glossy, feel heavy and full, and are free of dirt and mold.
Rinse chestnuts and pat dry.
With a small sharp knife, carefully (and I do mean CAREFULLY! Those smooth firm shells can be slippery and it was here that I cut my thumb, not badly, but let's avoid that part by being EXTRA careful on this step!) …
Carefully cut through the shell of each chestnut until the tip of the knife reaches the flesh of the chestnut. Cut a broad X through the shell of each nut. (The X I have pictured here is on the small side. When I roasted mine, even though I had cut a small x in each shell, one still exploded in the oven. Cutting a larger X across one side will insure that steam can escape and will make the chestnut easier to peel.)
Scatter scored chestnuts on a shallow baking pan. Place in the oven and roast at 400F for about 20 minutes. When the chestnuts are done the shell will have curled back at the X. You want to roast them long enough to allow the nut to pull back from the shell and the brown skin but not long enough to become dry. Either extreme will leave the chestnuts harder to peel.
Remove chestnuts from oven. Place the nuts on a towel or hold them in your hand using a potholder and squeeze them to roughly crush (crack) the shells. Let cool slightly.
As soon as you can hold them in your hand peel the chestnuts. This can be done with your hands, though your thumbs may hurt after a few. While the nuts are still warm the shells will come off more easily.
Reheat as needed to aid in peeling the whole batch.