Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire, Not bloody likely!!

It is that time of the year where I make every effort to give my family & friends a heart attack by feeding them my "Deep Fried Chestnut Plums" as dessert.
The primary ingredients for this delight are home made Marrons Glacés and
Crème de Marrons and having struggled over the years to get a decent yield of whole chestnuts  for glazing I decided to explore the standard (as in published) methods of preparing the chesnuts and then try to improve on them.
Here is the result.

Shelling and Peeling Chestnuts for Marrons Glacés
When preparing chestnuts for Marrons Glacés or other chestnut dishes I find that the “standard method” of roasting, peeling, boiling and skinning  produces a “standard” result.
By that I mean that every chestnut or batch of chestnuts reacts differently based on size, age, thickness of shell and genetic variations from tree to tree.
The standard result is therefore a handful of chestnuts that are cosmetically good enough for glazing, broken bits that can be glazed as “chefs’ perks” or consigned to a puree, and a mealy mush that can be consigned to the pig swill bucket.
Bugger the sentimental Christmas songs, chestnuts roasting on an open fire will get you a family full of sore thumbs and broken thumbnails and a carpet full of chestnut shells and broken bits.

“The Grinch hath spoken here endeth the first lesson”

Now if you are serious about making a decent, whole and properly done roast chestnut you will need the following tools:
A good heavy skillet (preferably cast iron)
A Birds Beak knife (Unashamedly I will plug Furi brand as the best Birds Beak on the market).

A strong, well-manicured and varnish free thumb nail (optional if you have good knife skills).
A small roasting pan with either a wire rack or perforated insert.

The Method
First cut an ‘X’ on the flat side of the chestnut, the cut should penetrate the shell and not cut into the meat,
This is where a good knife is essential.
Now the traditional method says bung ‘em in the oven and roast them, I say bollocks.
Neatly cut and 'X' on the flat side
Using the well-manicured thumb nail and the Birds Beak Knife carefully peel back the shell starting at the center of the ‘X’ and working side to side.

Nicely Shelled, Note the Furi Birds Beak Knife
The shell will be just as easy to peel off and you will now have chestnuts in perfect unbroken form with peel intact.

Next take a goodly knob of butter (I use about 2 tablespoons in a 10” iron skillet), melt the butter on medium heat then add the chestnuts to the butter and toss, shake, rattle and roll them around until they are thoroughly coated in butter.
The idea is to get a good coating but not to fry the chestnuts so don’t muck about for too long.

Lovely and buttery!
Now preheat the oven to 400F.

Transfer the chestnuts to the roasting pan and let them rest until the butter has congealed, this will ensure that the butter has soaked in thoroughly.
Ready for roasting.
Put the roasting pan on the middle shelf of the oven and roast the chestnuts for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool.
You will now have roasted chestnuts with crispy skins and a buttery layer on the nut surface.
Once the nuts are cool enough to handle (if you are a righty), pick up a nut holding the top and bottom between your left thumb and fore finger and squeeze firmly across the nut with the thumb and forefinger of your right hand. You should hear a satisfying crunch as the skin cracks.
Now using thumbnail and trusty Birds Beak Knife pierce the crispy skin slightly at about the center of the flat side and pry up the skin with the point of the knife.

Now, when you were shelling, I told you to work side to side but for peeling you must work from center to top and center to bottom on the flat side and from top to bottom (top being the “pointy” end of the chestnut), the reason for this is that the nut has a “grain” with the fibers running top to bottom and if you work across the grain the nut may possibly split and fall apart.
That said, first peel the flat side as described above and then flip the nut over and peel the rounded side from top to bottom.

Where you find folds of skin that have grown into the nut (I call them butt cracks) start at the narrowest end of the fold and carefully lift the “vein’ out.

You may find some nuts where a membrane has grown almost completely through the nut, these I call "double yolkers" and you might just as well save yourself some aggro by dividing the nut into two pieces and removing the membrane just as you would the skin.

Work in Process
Voila, you have a perfectly shelled and peeled chestnut.
It may sound like a lot of work but if you are going to spend the next 4 days making Marrons Glacés the time spent here is well worth it.

I tried this method on some large and obviously quite “mature” chestnuts.

A few, like the author, were wrinkled, stubborn and a pain in the arse.
I tossed those into a saucepan, barely covered them with water, brought the water to a brisk boil and immediately removed from the heat and drained.
About half of them peeled very easily the rest were too old and tough to even consider so they were binned.

I think with fresh young chestnuts this process should be a doddle and will try it when my local farmers market has them on the stalls!!

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