Roast chestnuts – another truly seasonal ingredient. When I was a kid, they were a real treat. We bought them in paper twists from the man with a roasting cart outside the British Museum, we gathered them in the woods to roast them in the oven at home, and once, excitingly, we roasted them on a coal shovel in the fireplace, one chestnut left unpricked so it exploded like a violent kitchen timer to tell us when it was ready.
Now, chestnuts just roasted in their skins and eaten immediately are delicious. But an Italian friend at university taught me to sauté the peeled chestnuts in butter and sprinkle them with coarse salt after roasting, and it’s now far and away my favourite way to prepare them. The butter kicks up the flavour a notch, the sautéing does wonderful things to the chestnuts’ texture, and a scattering of coarse salt (I used a French fleur de sel) is the perfect contrast to the sweet, fluffy flesh of the chestnuts.
If you’re stuck in the UK, you’re likely to be stuck with the English chestnut, which has a papery pith inside the shell, covering the nut. It’s a pest to remove, and is easiest to take off while the chestnuts are still very hot – this is easiest to deal with if you are one of the asbestos fingered fraternity. It’s great if you can find someone to help you peel – it gets the job done faster, so you can get to the chestnuts when the piths will still come away easily.
The Chinese chestnut, a little smaller than the English variety, has no inner pith, and we ate them by the bushel-load when I was a kid in Malaysia. They’re a lovely chestnut – if you can find some where you are, grab plenty and freeze some – all raw chestnuts freeze well. In the USA this pithless Asian variety has been hybridised with the sugary American variety, so you can buy big, fat, achingly sweet chestnuts without any papery pith. I hope British growers will cotton on to this trick soon – they’re appallingly good. When you buy your chestnuts, try to find some which are plump and glossy. They lose moisture and flavour quickly, so it’s a good idea to either freeze them until you’re ready to cook them or to cook them as soon as you get them home.
To roast and sauté enough chestnuts (of whatever variety you choose) to serve four, you’ll need:
1kg fresh chestnuts
2 large tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt to sprinkle
Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). While the oven is warming, cut a cross in the flat side of each chestnut with a sharp knife – try to pierce the skin without cutting into the flesh. This is very important – an unpierced chestnut will explode when it cooks, so make sure you don’t miss any!
Arrange the chestnuts on baking sheets and roast for 25 minutes. Start to peel as soon as you can bear to touch them (this way it will be easier to remove the pith) and set the peeled chestnuts aside.
Melt the butter in a large frying pan and throw the peeled chestnuts in when it starts to bubble. Saute, keeping the nuts on the move, until all the butter is absorbed and any crumbly bits of nut are turning gold and crisp (about 5 minutes). Turn out into bowls and scatter salt over. Serve immediately.