IT’S A PRETTY GOOD BET that unless you’re a longtime New York City resident (that is, before 1950), your exposure to cooked chestnuts is likely limited to tasty little pieces of the nut in a Thanksgiving stuffing, in a candy dish, or, if you’re lucky, in a soup or stew.
Even into the early 1950s, every city corner in late fall and winter seemed to be home to a chestnut vendor, and shoppers and commuters could buy a paper bag of the hot nuts and keep their hands warm while peeling and eating the delicious hot morsels. Irving Penn included a portrait of a New York chestnut vendor among his many memorable portraits; scribbled on the side of the vendor’s wagon is the invitation, “Chestnuts: Food for the brain. Try a bag.”
As a true nut, chestnuts are somewhat unusual nutritionally. They have an exceptionally high amount of vitamin C (which, however, is drastically reduced by boiling). Sometimes labeled as a “Paleo” food, they’re gluten-free and are an excellent source of oleic acid, manganese, vitamin B6 and copper.
Recipes calling for chestnuts are understandably scarce in modern cuisine, though they were a common foodstuff for indigenous people throughout the eastern half of North America. Peter Seidman, chef/owner of Stoney Creek Restaurant in Tivoli (now gone), offered his recipe for Marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) in Valley Table 2 (November 1998–January 1999), and Carol Clement, owner of Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow (Albany County), shared her recipe for pork and chestnut stew in Valley Table 38 (October–November 2007).
The simplest and most common way to enjoy chestnuts is to roast them whole, peel off the shell and eat them hot or cooled. First, prepare each nut by cutting about a half-inch slit all the way through the shell on the flat side of the nut. (Some sources recommend cutting an ‘X’ on the round side. The purpose is the same: to allow the moisture and pressure that builds up inside to escape. Otherwise, the nut will literally explode—not dangerous, but noisy and messy.) Preheat the oven to 375˚F, spread the chestnuts out in a single layer on a baking sheet or oven pan, and roast until the nut meat is tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly, peel them while they’re still hot and eat hot or cold. Be sure to remove the darker, paper-like “skin” along with the shell when you peel them.
If you have an opportunity to try chestnuts this winter, don’t hesitate. They’ll warm your hands, your stomach and your soul.