Starting in the fall, outside New York’s famous toy store FAO Schwarz, and just south and east of the stonewalls surrounding Central Park, street vendors line the sidewalks. With fingerless gloves and blackened nails, they sell paper bags of chestnuts, roasting, as the song goes, on an open fire (NYC open fires are lined with bits of charcoal in aluminum foil pans).
Roasted chestnuts smell incredible, like autumn and winter mixed with freshly made bread and roasting nuts. They are best served still warm and in the shell. Enjoying them takes a little time. The chestnut eater must slow down a bit to enjoy them, peeling each one individually before moving on to the next morsel.
Around this time of year, grocery stores begin to offer fresh chestnuts for sale. They are not cheap, so inspect them carefully. If you shake a chestnut and the nut rattles around inside the shell, it most likely has dried out and shriveled. Chestnuts spoil easily. Look for signs of mold or black rot. The best chestnuts are plump and large, around the size of a split golf ball or larger. The hard shell should give a little, on the rounded side, when squeezed with force.
To roast chestnuts at home:
Start by preheating the oven to 425 degrees.
Next, using a serrated knife, score the chestnuts, cutting an x into the outer shell on the rounded side. If you forget this step, be prepared for the chestnuts to explode in the oven, like popcorn, as the unvented pressure builds within the sealed chestnut.
Place the scored chestnuts in a saucepan and fill it with cold water until the chestnuts are just covered.
Bring the cold water to a simmer. Then remove the chestnuts from the water and put them in a pan.
Roast them in a 425 degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until the shells have opened and browned lightly around the edges.
Serve them wrapped in a kitchen towel. If they cool completely they become hard to peel. Break open the hard shell, exposing the roasted chestnut inside, and eat immediately.
The chestnuts should be soft and chewy, not hard. Often they taste sweet with bits of bitter from charred edges.