Don’t Worry, Eat Chestnuts

Dear Children,

Marshall and I spent a nice afternoon with your father’s family yesterday. Daddy and Livia had to stay home, because they were sick. Poor Livia cried because she couldn’t go. I felt bad leaving her behind, but she was coughing so much. Not only did she need her rest, but we didn’t want to expose Vovó (who is over 80) to any dangerous germs.

It was chestnut season. November 11 is Dia de Sao Martinho (St. Martin’s Day). In Portugal, it’s traditional to celebrate the day by roasting chestnuts and drinking the first wine of the year. Technically, we visited on the weekend after, but there were still chestnuts at the store and Vovô always has wine. He offered me jupinga (I’m not sure of the spelling—it’s a sweet Portuguese liqueur).

But before any wine or wine-based liqueurs could be drunk, the chestnuts had to be roasted. Vovó gave me a lesson on how to do that. Here I will tell you everything I learned from her, all details lovingly included.

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Wash, drain, and (if necessary) pat dry the chestnuts.

Using a knife with a sharp point, carefully poke a hole at one end of the flatter side, slip the blade under the skin, and cut downward and around, following the shape of the chestnut, to create a little flap. The way she had me do this was to hold a paring knife along the blade so that I could control the point. I wouldn’t recommend this method to anyone else, but as all my fingers are intact, I would use it again.

I worried about making mistakes. Vovó was patient. “Worry about yourself, not the chestnut,” she said. In other words, don’t cut yourself. Everything else is fine. Take a chunk out of the nut inside? No problem. Don’t get all the way through the skin? No problem. Accidentally cut the flap off? No problem. The only thing that matters, she said, is that you create some sort of cut to let out some steam and keep your chestnuts from exploding. She showed me several other ways one could cut a chestnut, such as cutting down the rounder side. She says she gets the best results when she does them the way she showed me.

Then you put the chestnuts on a cookie sheet. She had lined hers with aluminum foil. She also tossed salt on top of the chestnuts, but only, she said, because Vovô likes a little salt on them.

Put them in the oven and let them bake briefly at 400°. I’m not sure how long it was, maybe 10-15 minutes. Then turn the heat down to 350° and bake them some more. Some people just roast them at 350°, but Vovó says she likes the way they come out when you start them out hotter.

After about 30 minutes total baking time, start checking them. They’re done when they can be squeezed easily. Take out a sample and squeeze it. If it squeezes nice, and peels nice, try a nibble. If it seems done, then you’re good to go.

Now, at this point, some people would simply peel the chestnuts. Vovó said it’s important to peel them while they’re still hot or the skins will get hard again, but she likes to “sweat” the chestnuts first. She puts them in a large bowl lined with dry paper towels. Then she puts a wet paper towel across the top of the chestnuts, topped by a clean, dry dish towel, topped by a baking sheet. This keeps the chestnuts warm, and steams them just a bit, which helps the skins come off easier.

After they’ve had their sauna, you peel them. Peeling is easy. You squeeze them until the shell cracks, then take the shell off the nut. Simple, right? Except when the nut pulls apart, or part of the shell is growing into the cracks of the nut, or the papery inner skin doesn’t want to come off, or there are yucky spots on the chestnuts. Here’s how Vovó taught me to handle these issues.

  • Nut pulls apart while you’re taking the skin off. Oh, well. Take it out the best you can. Put the pieces in the bowl along with the perfect ones. Or eat it, if you like.
  • Papery inner skin doesn’t want to come off. Use your paring knife to gently scrape it up. Cut it off if it’s really stubborn.
  • Shell growing into the nut. Try to pull it out. If necessary, open the nut and cut it out. She told me not to worry too much about overlooking any pieces of shell, though, because they won’t hurt you.
  • Yucky spots. There’s no way to know if a chestnut is bad until you take off its shell. Vovó said she once got a batch that was completely bad, but most of the time, there are only a few bad ones. If the thing is obviously rotten or bug-eaten, throw it away. Small yucky or yucky-looking spots can be cut off. Black spots are bad, but brown ones usually aren’t. It’s important to note that there’s a lot of variation in color. Your average roasted chestnuts are mostly yellow with traces of brown, but some are almost completely brown, and she says those are fine, too. She must be right. I ate some brown ones, and I haven’t died yet.

You kids consider chestnuts a strange, foreign food. The texture is unusual, granted, but I think the biggest problem is that you don’t know what to expect from them. The color variations freak you out. So I will pass along what Vovó told me. She said you should always break open the nut before you eat it. That way you can tell if it’s bad before you eat it. Inside, the color of the nut will range from whitish to brownish. This is normal. At the end of the nut will be a little brown piece. This is the sprout that would have come out of the nut had it been allowed to grow. It’s perfectly edible, but little kids who don’t want to eat it can just pull that part off. Vovó is easy-going.

Most people keep cooking instructions shorter, I know. I included every detail so that we can put our minds at ease later if we start to fret over the details. Vovó’s chestnut-roasting lesson was, in a way, a lesson in not worrying. Aside from cutting yourself, there’s hardly anything that can go so terribly wrong. Just prepare the chestnuts and and eat them. They’re good, and they’re good for you. Life doesn’t always have to be hard.



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