A Guide to Chestnuts for Newbies: Picking, Roasting and a Few Recipe Ideas

We were excited to get an invitation from our friend Laure to join her family for a day of chestnut picking at Skyline Chestnut Farm and rock climbing at Castle Rock State Park. (Laure is also known as Frog Mom — you might remember that we gave away her awesome book about hiking with kids recently). A confession here, I’ve been rather food-obsessed my whole life, but I have never picked or cooked with fresh chestnuts. Water chestnuts (out of a can) once in a while, but fresh chestnuts never. I’m not sure I can even recall a memorable chestnut-eating experience. Around here they don’t sell them from carts like they do in NYC and you don’t see them much (the fresh ones at least) outside of farmers’ markets.

I think a big part of being a foodie is celebrating a curiosity about new things. And since chestnuts are a new ingredient for my family, Luca and I thought it would be something fun that we could discover together. No better way to start our discovery than by seeing where they come from. Unfortunately when the big day for our adventure arrived, we were running late (no surprise to anyone who knows me!), and we pulled up just as Laure’s gang was heading out, full buckets in hand, ready to do some kid-friendly rock climbing. So we newbies were on our own!

We had such a fabulous adventure. The setting was stunning, and there were an abundance of trees to climb and piles of leaves to jump in. In retrospect, though, I don’t recommend chestnut picking with an itsy bitsy one. There’s a lot of bending up and down on sloped ground and many prickly things, so it’s kind of a back breaking exercise fraught with hazards when you’re lugging around a little one in a baby bjorn. I would recommend reserving this adventure for steady walkers and/or consider bringing along an extra pair of hands to share baby-holding duties.

Now back to the chestnuts! Knowing next to nothing before our visit, we learned a few things which we wanted to pass along to other chestnut newbies out there:

  • There are European, American and Asian varieties of chestnuts which have slight differences in both appearance and flavor. The American variety has a little bit of fuzz on it’s shiny dark brown shell and it tends to have a sweeter flavor. You might be surprised to know that a chestnut is more like a potato or taro root than a walnut. It’s starchy and crumbly.
  • Chestnut trees hybridize themselves quite easily, so where there are a diversity of trees growing together, you probably won’t experience distinct varieties.
  • You do not pick chestnuts from the tree, only off the ground. In fact they are only ripe after they have fallen. So “picking” entails searching around on the ground rather than climbing ladders and reaching into high branches (making this a good U-pick activity for kids.)
  • The outermost layer of a chestnut is a prickly shell, almost like a hard, spikey tennis ball or a sea urchin. Inside that layer you’ll find one or more of the shiny, brown chestnuts we’re all more used to seeing. Because of the prickly outer layer, sturdy gloves are a must. Luckily that prickly covering splits after the nut falls so harvesting the nut is not too perilous if you have hand protection. [The farm didn’t have kid-sized gloves. We made do, but you might consider bringing some if you happen to have a pair.]
  • The key word of advice from my chestnut expert, Laure, was to go for the big ones. When you consider the effort to prepare chestnuts (blanching, roasting, shelling), the little ones hardly seem worth the effort. In addition to size you want to look for chestnuts that are firm, shiny and feel heavy for their size.
  • Our most surprising realization of the day was was that  a majority of our fellow pickers were speaking Japanese. I suppose I had always associated chestnuts with European cooking — autumnal desserts, accompaniments to roast pork, etc. Upon returning home,  we googled “Japanese chestnut recipes” and learned that chestnuts are one of the most beloved autumn flavors in Japan. Many people look forward all year to a simple rice dish called Kurigohan, which is essentially chestnuts (sometimes roasted) cooked together with rice and some other basic seasonings.
  • Upon getting our chestnuts home, I realized that getting them shelled is not such a simple task. Many sites instruct you to slit the chestnut’s hard, shiny shell with an “x” (to provide a way for steam to escape and make peeling easier), roast for 20 minutes at 400 degrees, wrap in a towel for 5 minutes and slide off the skins. Sounds easy, right? My first batch had me cursing. These suckers are slippery and hard to cut into (a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen if you ask me) and the tough, brown inner shell and papery husk inside that can be pesky to separate from the rather delicate, crumbly edible part of the nut. After a little more research, I recommend Chef John’s technique: make a single, deep cut with a serrated knife, blanch, then roast, then wrap in a towel to steam in their residual heat. Check out his video tutorial which explains this much better than I ever could. Save yourself a big headache because this is definitely the way to go.
  • You should be able to find jarred or pureed chestnuts in lieu of fresh. I never noticed these products before, but now that we’ve been looking we’ve spied them on the shelves of fancier grocery stores and Asian markets.

We picked out a few recipes to showcase our haul: plain old roasted chestnuts (as in “Chestnuts roasting over an open fire…”); Fuji Mama’s KurigohanRoasted Pork with Balsamic Vinegar and Chestnut Glaze from Epicurious, and Dan Lepard’s Mont Blanc layer cake (meringue layers with a chestnut-ricotta cream, dark chocolate and whipped cream). We’re working our way through these and will report back. Now that we’re midway through our chestnut adventure I must confess that the jury is still out. My family has not yet  been converted into chestnut devotees. Let’s just say that we’re on the fence but we’re keeping a open mind.

There may be another week  or two of chestnut picking where you are, but they’ll be gone again in a flash.