I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never roasted chestnuts. I’ve sung about it plenty, but never actually roasted chestnuts on an open fire. Never even ate a chestnut. Go figure.
I often pull recipes out of cooking magazines and keep them in neat plastic page savers to create my own cookbooks. A few years ago, I collected a recipe for roasted chestnuts and mushrooms. Every Christmas I think about making it, but I don’t because I can’t find chestnuts in the supermarket and I never think to order them in advance. Yesterday, I’m in the supermarket in the produce department and I see a basket of chestnuts on sale for only 99 cents. Clearance special. Ye-haw. I pick up two baskets thinking I’ll try that holiday recipe at long last. Cool.
When I get home, I flip open my recipe book and see that I’m supposed to use canned, roasted chestnuts. Mine are raw, still in the shell. No problem. I’ll just figure out how to roast them. They’ve been doing it for a hundred years (the song is proof) so how hard can it be? I go on-line to get the know how and learn that I should cut a slit in the shells (no easy task, I assure you) put them on a cookie sheet, and roast them at 450 for 20 minutes. Then, I’m to press the moisture out of the nut, remove the outer shells and I’ll have freshly roasted chestnuts for the recipe. I go about this laborious chore feeling very Christmassy. I’m humming the song, of course.
When the timer goes off I turn off the oven and open the door. A waft of smoke almost affiliates me. I cough and gag and pull out the cookie sheet to see little black, shriveled chestnuts rolling about. I put a few in a kitchen towel to “squeeze out the moisture” but they’re as dry as a bone. Hummm….. I crack one open and even though it is hot enough to burn my tongue, I take a bite. Almost break a tooth. The nutmeat inside is as hard the shell and the taste is like a combination of cardboard and bitter chalk, not unlike taking a bite out of a raw cinnamon stick hoping it just might taste like donuts.
I spit out the nut, rub my tongue on the towel then take a huge gulp of coffee (I always cook with coffee or wine, depending on the hour and the dish being created).
Mark comes home and asks what I’m making. I tell him there’s a cheesecake in the oven (his mother’s request) and a sweet potato casserole (his favorite) and sage and sausage stuffing (Kent’s favorite). I just put a peach aspic in the fridge and I was getting ready to start a dessert using my homemade mint cordial (which came out glorious, by the way). I still need to make something chocolate because we’ve invited a few friends and I know they count on getting a chocolate extravaganza when I’m cooking. I’ll finish off or add to these pre-made dishes tomorrow while making the rest of the meal, but I like to get a good start and some things need to be refrigerated overnight. I tell him he’s getting spaghetti for dinner, but he has to wait. I’m in the throws of Christmas feast creation, don’t ya know.
I then point out my crispy chestnuts and give him an overview of my folly. He grimaces and says, “Good. I hate chestnuts.”
“When have you ever had chestnuts?”
“A few years ago they sold roasted chestnuts at the holiday in lights display at Callaway Gardens, so I tried them, remember? They were awful.”
“Well, that had to be because they were a mass produced, holiday gimmick. Chestnuts have to be better when made the old fashion way. It’s a pretty famous Christmas thing, roasted chestnuts.”
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if the dang things did taste good, you’d find them everywhere this time of year, the same way cocoa drinks become the monthly special at the coffeehouse or peppermint finds it’s way into desserts or ice cream flavors. Apparently, chestnuts suck and everyone knows it but me.
This morning, I’m going to the supermarket to pick up a pre-ordered prime tenderloin beef roast, my traditional Christmas Eve main course. I wrap it in puffed pastry trucking a layer of sautéed mushrooms under the crispy coating. While there, I might just look for those canned chestnuts. It’s the principal of the thing, you see. I don’t think it’s fair to give up an entire food product without giving it a fair shot, and if I find the one and only recipe that makes chestnuts palatable, it will give me something to brag about every December. If nothing else, my roasted chestnuts and mushroom-onion sauté will be a horrible side dish that everyone can make fun of – but at least my kids won’t grow up to be fifty never having tasted roasted chestnuts. I realize I might ruin the song for everyone, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take in the interest of food exploration.
So that’s my plan for today. I’ll be feeding everyone to kick off Christmas indulgence. I’ll start with the big bones I bought for the dogs, move on to the bananas and carrots I have for the angora rabbits and dig out some apples and carrots for the llama and horses. I’m going to clean the fridge so the chickens will have a bag full of wilted produce and fruit to pick at too. Then, I’ll move on to family and friends. I’ll seduce them with my melt in the mouth beef tenderloin and a host of gourmet side dishes, homemade wine, and cordials. There will be an inviting display of desserts awaiting them on the sideboard offering the promise of a sweet finale. This will help them relax, confident that everything I serve is great – then, when they are eating with relish and not paying attention, I’ll spoon those damn chestnuts onto their plate and see what happens.
There is a little Grinch in all of us.