“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” its one of the most iconic song verses of the holiday season, but even having heard those words in America my entire life, I never had roasted chestnuts until my hubby took me to Greece for the first time.
Fall was fading into winter and the weather on the island had grown sharply cold. The northern winds that reach the island all the way from the Balkans were a great departure from the hot Mediterranean humidity we had gotten so accustomed to just a couple of months earlier. Our long daily walks across the countryside were now filled with a frigidness that often made us think twice about venturing out and walking for miles, but our deep desire to experience the beauty of the island permeated any of our second thoughts.
One afternoon during our daily walk, we crossed paths with an old man harvesting some spiky orbs from a tree on the side of the road. He greeted us as we approached, as everyone on the island does- you cannot pass by another person there without them acknowledging you (it is such a beautiful thing). A conversation ensued and he began to show us what he was harvesting as he broke open the spiky exteriors to reveal “KAH-stah-nah” chestnuts – immediately I could hear that timeless verse in my mind: “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” In that moment an open fire never sounded better. Our hands were frozen from the cold but after spending some time with the old man on the side of the road, they were now yielding the gift of fresh chestnuts.
We walked back to the village and brought our fresh chestnuts to our friends’ house where we gathered around their mini wood stove for a night of wood fired warmth and good conversation. The intense heat that only a wood fire can emanate had never felt better, but the real highlight of our evening was our misguided attempt at eating those chestnuts. Our friends’ idea of placing the chestnuts on top of the wood stove definitely was successful in roasting the chestnuts, but as each nut finished roasting it would explode into pieces all over the room. We got full on laughter rather than roasted chestnuts, as we would race to grab whatever large fragments we could before the dogs got to them, but every piece that ended up in our mouths was absolutely delicious.
Warm and toasty, with such a unique and distinct flavor, I finally understood the nostalgia surrounding roasted chestnuts. I would have never expected my first experience of chestnuts to be wrapped up in my memories of our first stay in Greece together. Every year since then, when I see chestnuts pop up at our local farmers market, I am filled with a longing for the island.
Roasted chestnuts really do live up to all of the nostalgia, but they can be a bit fussy to get out of their shell and skin. After trying several different methods this recipe has worked out to be successful. Slittling the chestnuts around the perimiter is key, as well as soaking them in boiling water before they roast in the oven.
Now that I know firsthand the essence of that iconic song verse, roasted chestnuts will always hold a very special place in my heart and the holiday season will not pass by without us roasting chestnuts at least one time.
- 16 oz. whole chestnuts
- Using a paring knife, slit into the shell and the skin down the side of each chestnut (see note below) - being sure not to pierce too deep as to cut into the meat - place each prepared chestnut into a heat proof bowl
- While you slit the chestnuts, bring a kettle or pot of water to a boil
- Once all of the chestnuts are slit and the water has come to a boil, pour the boiling water over the chestnuts and let them soak until the water has come to room temperature (about 30-45 minutes)
- Place a 12" cast iron skillet into the oven and preheat to 375f
- Once the oven is pre-heated, remove the hot cast iron skillet from the oven and place the soaked chestnuts into the skillet
- Return to the oven and roast for 30 minutes - shake the pan every so often to toss the chestnuts around so they roast evenly
- When finished roasting, remove chestnuts from the oven and cover the pan with a lid or wrap the nuts in a dishcloth to further steam them if they have not all completely opened up (let them steam for about 10 min more)
- Keeping the chestnuts covered so they stay warm, one by one remove each chestnut from their shell & skin
- Eat them warm just as is or use in a recipe
*If using freshly harvest chestnuts, wait about 4-5 days before roasting
*It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of slitting the chestnuts, but to protect yourself from any knife mishaps - you can use a utility knife with just 1/4" of the blade exposed or alternately wrap your paring knife with some duct tape leaving only 1/4" at the tip exposed
*If any of the skins remained attached to the chestnuts after following the above process, you can steam them for about 5 minutes to loosen the skin