Now is the time to enjoy chestnuts at their glossiest best. Divested of their hedgehog armour, the nuts are a gleaming polished mahogany with moist crisp flesh. Peeling the inner skin requires patience and dexterity but it's a rewarding challenge.
Roasting chestnuts on an open fire is one of my favourite winter rituals. On a recent visit to France I was delighted to find a special chestnut-roasting oven that I simply had to buy. It looks like a deep cake tin with a lid and a nifty sliding door in the side. Throw in a handful of chestnuts, close the door, then set the oven on an open fire for 15–20 minutes, shaking it now and again, or until you hear the nuts popping. Roasting the nuts in an enclosed container gives them a deliciously smoky flavour and helps prevent burning. The only drawback is that you can't see inside the oven to see how the nuts are doing.
An alternative to the French oven is a long-handled chestnut pan with a perforated base. It comes in handy for tossing the nuts once they start to blacken, but remember to slit or prick the shells first or they will explode like hand grenades.
If you don't have an open fire or a wood-burning stove, roast your chestnuts in a hot oven for 20–25 minutes. Once roasted, the texture is mealy and crunchy at the same time – lovely dipped in sea salt and butter, or try honey and black pepper for a change.
Peeled and cooked chestnuts can be used in various dishes. They're a classic partner to Brussels sprouts, and a key ingredient in turkey stuffing – although I've never understood why since both have a tendency to dryness. They're especially good in braises with game, however. Both are in season at the same time and the rich flavours complement each other.
Try chestnuts in a wholesome lentil, celery and chestnut soup, or fry them in butter with shallots, crisp chunks of apple and a sprinkle of brown sugar to serve with roast pork. They're also good stir-fried with bok choy, mushrooms and sesame seeds.
Moving on to sweet things, a classic chestnut dessert is Mont Blanc – a decadent concoction of sweetened chestnut purée, whipped cream and crushed meringue. You can use ready-made chestnut purée or whiz up some cooked chestnuts from a packet or tin with caster sugar and vanilla extract. Chestnut purée is lovely, too, swirled in streaks into good-quality vanilla ice cream. Top with grated chocolate and a few chopped chestnuts for a stylish but easy-to-make dessert.
My favourite dessert this winter is Pear and Chestnut Tart with Rosemary and Orange Syrup – a celebration of seasonal ingredients that go so well together at this time of year. It's perfect for a special occasion – do give it a try.
Select the largest plumpest nuts with glossy brown shells.
They should feel heavy for their size. Give them a squeeze to make sure the nut meat isn't shrivelled.
Keep loosely wrapped in the salad drawer of the fridge, a cool larder or dry shed.
Cut a vertical slit through the shell and put the nuts in a pan of cold water. Boil for 4–5 minutes, then remove from the heat leaving the nuts in the pan. Fish out one or two at a time and peel off the shells and brown membrane – easier when the nuts are warm.
© Christine McFadden, December 2020