By JIM WILLIS
It is of questionable value that we can walk into any grocery store in America and buy tasteless tomatoes in December and bland blueberries in February. In fact, it’s thanks to this dubious convenience that culinary traditions— especially those that were passed down from generation to generation as a way to best feed ourselves based on the harvest season — are such a rarity.
And so it goes that PieHole seeks out the last remaining vestiges of these traditions around the Green and shares the tastiest ones.
Roasted chestnuts are one such truly delicious culinary tradition.
We’re lucky to live around the corner from a pair of Italian moms who are well versed in the art and science of roasting chestnuts, as their parents were before them. PieHole paid a visit to the sun-filled Mori Place, Red Bank kitchen of Melissa Bartolone, joined by neighbor Christina Dostie to get some instruction on choosing, roasting and eating chestnuts.
“In most other countries,” says Bartolone, “when something is in season like chestnuts, you eat it until you can’t look at it anymore. And then it’s gone. So you appreciate the season more that way.”
Roasting chestnuts is a tradition in Bartolone’s family. “When my dad came to this country, he lived in a section of Brooklyn that was all Italian, so it was easy to get things like chestnuts,” she says.
Christina Dostie’s parents came to the United States from Italy in the 1950’s. Dostie recalls when she was a child, coming inside from playing in the snow and her mom would be roasting chestnuts.
“Growing up in Italy, both of my parents had [chestnut] trees in their yards,” says Dostie, “and when they came to the U.S., chestnuts were available in the food stores.”
Now, both moms carry on the tradition of roasting chestnuts with their families.
“My kids love them, my husband loves them,” says Dostie. “As soon as the season hits—right around Thanksgiving— we look for them, and can’t get enough of them.”
For the uninitiated, eating roasted chestnuts requires some work. First, you need to score them with a knife so they don’t explode while they’re roasting. Then, once they’re roasted, you peel them while they’re still hot. Despite the effort, both moms agree that turning to the jarred, pre-peeled alternative is just not worth it. Peeling the warm chestnuts is part of the experience, says Dostie.
“It’s like cracking nuts,” says Bartolone. “You’re sitting at the table, maybe playing cards or you’re having a couple of drinks. It’s like walnuts or pecans — it’s a tactile thing where part of the fun is getting to the good stuff.”
Then, of course, there’s finding good chestnuts. Both moms agree that you can find the same Italian chestnuts at most local food stores around the Green and you should just look for the best price: this year they’ve ranged from $4.99 per pound at the Little Silver A&P and Middletown Whole Foods to $7.99 a pound at the Red Bank Foodtown.
As for choosing chestnuts for roasting, “you have to stand over the bin and check each one,” says Bartolone. “You want a shiny and smooth chestnut – it should look like furniture. You don’t want any air in it, so squeeze it and check. You don’t want any cracks, you don’t want any green mold,” she says.
Scoring the chestnuts is a process steeped in lore and family tradition. The Dosties opt for one line across the flat side of the chestnut, the Bartolones for two lines, one on each side. Each politely insists that her family’s method is superior, but they agree that cutting an X into the flat side, as others do, is hogwash.
“Our family used to put an X on the flat side, and it would curl back when we roasted them. But over time, we found that it doesn’t peel as easily as it does with a straight line on either side of the chestnut,” says Bartolone.
Scoring the chestnuts before roasting also makes peeling easier. Cutting through the thick shell of the chestnut is a time-consuming process, and the women agree that rushing through the job will land you in the emergency room for a few stitches.
You can get a dedicated chestnut scoring tool, or just use a short knife. Bartolone recalls that her father used to use the knife on the family’s corkscrew wine opener to score their chestnuts.
Once scored, you place the chestnuts on a cooking sheet and moisten them a bit – either by sprinkling them with water from your hands or filling the cookie sheet with water and then emptying it — before putting them in the oven.
You can roast them at between 400 and 450 degrees, and start to check them after 15 minutes or so.
“You have to try one to see if they’re done,” says Dostie. “If they’re soft, like a potato when its fork tender, then they’re done.”
Once roasted, you’ll want to serve and peel them while they’re still warm. Bartolone says her dad used to always put the peeled chestnuts in some cognac. “The cognac takes on a bit of the chestnut taste, and vice-versa,” says Bartolone.
Dostie recommends a strong, sweet white wine. “My father made a homemade white [Moscato] wine, and the pairing of the chestnuts with his white wine was just to die for,” she says.
Either way, PieHole has found a tray of roasted chestnuts to be really enjoyable addition when sharing a few drinks around the table. They’re at their peak around Thanksgiving, but with Christmas right around the corner, you can still find them at area stores.
Over on PieHole‘s Facebook page we’ll post a couple of short videos that show how to score and peel chestnuts.