Chestnuts: fresh or vacuum-packed?
I certainly have no qualms about reaching for packets or tins of vacuum-packed, cooked and peeled chestnuts throughout the year because they are so good these days... and yet I’m a firm believer in eating seasonally.
Should you happen upon a late-autumnal haul of taut-shelled, plump chestnuts that feel weighty in the hand (they’re usually from France or Italy and occasionally from the UK), snap them up fast. Their flavour will be fresher and more intense than the very best vacuum-packed chestnuts and they should peel easily, once cooked.
If the only fresh chestnuts on offer are small or look even slightly wizened, I wouldn’t think twice about buying the ready-cooked sort. Not having to peel them (for they will almost certainly be tricky specimens) will save your fingers a great deal of time and discomfort.
How to roast chestnuts
Toast them in the embers of an open fire if you can – there’s nothing better, but for most people the oven will be the most likely place they cook them.
To cook fresh chestnuts in the oven, preheat your oven to 200C, 400F or gas 6.
Using a sharp knife, cut crosses into the chestnut skins on the flat side to stop them exploding and to make them easier to peel.
Spread out small batches in a roasting tin and bake for about half an hour.
Remove from the oven and immediately cover with a tea towel that you have soaked in cold water and wrung out. Leave covered for a couple of minutes, then peel.
The skins should come away readily, including the papery inner covering, known as the pellicle.
Return any stubborn chestnuts to the oven for a few minutes, then re-steam under the wet tea towel before peeling.
Cooking with chestnuts
Beyond the work involved, the fresh versus dried debate really boils down to what you intend to use them for.
Eaten as is, a vacuum-packed nut will never top a warm, freshly roasted chestnut, but when making soups, purées, stuffings, pasta sauces, risottos and the like (anything ‘wet’) I find the prepared sort more than adequate, not to mention fuss-free.
In baking - perhaps crumbled and folded into banana cake batter or puréed and combined with chocolate in a torte - freshly cooked and ground chestnuts may be more work, but their drier flesh won’t upset the balance with unwanted water.
Incidentally, chestnut flour makes a wonderful, sweet and rounded addition to many baked goodies.
For an easy canapé, scatter cooked and peeled chestnuts with chopped rosemary and plenty of pepper. Wrap each in a rasher of streaky bacon, laying them seam-sides down on a baking sheet. Roast at 220C, 450F, gas 8 for about 10 minutes, until golden and sizzling. Spear with cocktail sticks to serve.
Chestnuts are particularly good in root vegetable soups; try parsnip or butternut squash. Add the chestnuts with the stock and simmer until all is tender, then purée.
As a final idea, crumbled chestnuts, fried in butter and oil with plenty of fresh thyme, make a wonderful final flourish to risottos and soups.
Beef, beer and chestnut pie
Leek, parsnip and chestnut soup
Pork and chestnut stuffing
Pork loin with sherry-roasted parsnips and chestnuts
Mini chestnut nut roasts
Mushroom and chestnut puddings
Chestnut and butterbean Wellington
Mushroom, shallot and chestnut parcels
Chocolate and chestnut soufflé cake