Soon as our local cranberries, chestnuts and sweet potatoes show up at the co-op, I’m thrown into high holiday gear.
OK, it’s not yet Thanksgiving, but why wait for my favorite foods? Toss together our sweet earthy spuds, nutty creamy chestnuts and tangy fresh cranberries, and you have a dish to celebrate this season and place.
Grown in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, our local chestnuts are smaller than the large round varieties that are shipped here from California and Italy. Our local chestnuts are “Americanoid” hybrid nuts: firmer, tastier and far easier to work with.
When very fresh, they taste like water chestnuts (though the two are not related). Because they are smaller, the local chestnuts are sweeter and firmer and less starchy or bland than those from the West Coast.
Look for the local chestnuts in the bulk bins in our co-ops and at farmers markets. Be sure they feel heavy and firm. The shells shouldn’t look caved in or wrinkled. Often, chestnuts flown in from far away have been mishandled and have turned hard or moldy by the time they are sold. At home, store the chestnuts in brown paper bags in the crisper section of the refrigerator (not in plastic bags that trap moisture).
To roast chestnuts, score an X on the flat side with a sharp knife, scatter them on a baking pan, and roast in a 350-degree oven until the shells peel back, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove and allow to cool, then peel them.
Our favorite way to enjoy these forest gems is to score them and set them near the edge of a fire in the fireplace. If one pops, you have to kiss the person sitting next to you. Roasted this way, they are smoke-kissed and caramelized, great for enjoying with dessert wine or cocoa or chopping for stuffing, or a wild rice pilaf, or this simple dish with sweet potatoes.
You can prepare and cook the chestnuts about three days ahead and store them in the refrigerator in a covered container. But they are so delicious right after roasting that I’d rather cook a few extras to enjoy right away (cook’s prerogative).
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.