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Roasted Chestnuts Add Holiday Warmth

By John DiGilio in Food on Dec 21, 2010 7:00PM

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." It is hard to go anywhere this time of year without hearing Nat King Cole croon this famous opening line. Sure, we all know The Christmas Song. But how many of us have actually ever eaten a chestnut, roasted or otherwise? Nutritious and delicious, they are a versatile addition to the holiday diet. Roasting chestnuts, a common practice in Europe, really brings out their earthy flavor. It is an art that is not lost on anyone who has ever had the pleasure of partaking in this holiday tradition.

Each year, a group of Printers' Row neighbors gathers around a small Weber grill to keep their own chestnut tradition alive. For just about 10 years now, they have come together to share holiday fellowship, roast chestnuts and raise a holiday glass or two. The annual gathering was originally started by Pat Rafferty, a local resident looking to inject a little holiday spirit into his neighborhood. He passed on several years ago, but his memory and his chestnut roasting lives on in neighbors like Dave Schwan and John Matz who still man the very grill Pat Rafferty once used. With Hackney's serving up glögg and mulled cider to accompany the roasted nuts, it is a festive occasion and a real holiday treat. Anyone who happens by is given a bag of warm chestnuts and a Printers' Row greeting. This year's event happened just this past Saturday. Subscribers to Hackney's e-mail list get an annual notice ahead of time.

If you have never tasted a roasted chestnut, you are missing out. Raw chestnuts can have a sweet, woody taste and are firm to the bite. They are also, however, hard to shell. When roasted, the flavor becomes more subdued and the texture a little drier. Roasted chestnuts are softer than raw and can be peeled from their casings with far more ease. They are the perfect accompaniment to a cold day and a nice glass of wine. Chestnuts are high in fiber and actually lower in calories than most other nuts. They also have a healthy dose of vitamin C as well as may other vitamins and minerals.

Roasting chestnuts at home is easy. In fact, an open fire, though nice, is not required. Simply pick up some fresh chestnuts, in their shells, from the grocery store. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Carefully cut an "X" into the flat side of each nut. Be sure to cut through the skin, down into the nut. This is important, as it allows steam to escape as the nuts roast. Chestnuts that are not properly cut prior to roasting can explode. Once the cuts are made, place the nuts into a baking pan and sprinkle them with a little water. Place the pan on the middle shelf of the oven or lower. Roast your chestnuts for at least 15 minutes, though thicker nuts may need 20 to 30 minutes to cook through. Shake the pan occasionally to stir the nuts and sprinkle with water to prevent them from drying out. The chestnuts will brown and the skins will begin to peel back when done. Remove the shells while the nuts are warm and enjoy!

It is never too late to start a new holiday tradition of your own. Some of the very best traditions, of course, involve food. If you are going to do something year after year, it might as well taste good. The next time you feel Jack Frost nipping at your nose, chase the chill away with a little nip of your own. Serve up some roasted chestnuts and raise a glass to the closing of another delicious year.