Jessie Raymond: Seasonal treat a tough nut to crack

Remember this number: 4927.
It’s not a lottery pick. It’s not how many times I’ve misplaced my phone this year. I recently learned it’s the SKU code for chestnuts — a number cashiers can never find on their laminated produce sheets.
It isn’t their fault. As far as I can tell, only two people in Addison County ever buy chestnuts, and I’m one of them.
The other is a woman to whom I have not been formally introduced. We found ourselves buying chestnuts at the same time, and we made a connection, kind of like when two people meet at a party and discover that they, unlike the rest of the boring losers in the room, share a rare hobby, such as collecting vintage shoehorns.
In other words, we’re hip.
We talked about our chestnut-roasting Italian relatives and our love-hate relationship with this traditional holiday nut. In 30 years of living in Vermont, I had never met another person who understood the challenges and joys of roasting chestnuts. What a thrill.
Unlike the chestnuts in song, I roast mine in the oven, the way my Italian grandmother did when I was little. The ritual of peeling and eating chestnuts with family holds memories that allow me to forgive the glaring problem with chestnuts: They offer a disappointingly low return on investment.
But to me, they’re an essential part of Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you’ve never tried them (and odds are you haven’t), let me give you the rundown.
Chestnuts are only available for a few weeks each year, and they’re priced accordingly. While you can readily find them at most supermarkets, the checkout clerks will either not recognize them or will not be able to find the SKU. I have yet to buy chestnuts without at least two cashiers and a front-end manager having to confer in hushed tones at the register while the shoppers in line behind me grow increasingly disgruntled.
To prepare chestnuts for roasting, you first must cut a slit in the tops to let the steam out. (Nothing says holiday fun like exploding nuts, but it’s not as festive as it sounds.) Chestnut shells are made of nature’s patent leather; tough, shiny and slick, they don’t lend themselves to easy cutting. Keep Band-Aids nearby.
Roast the chestnuts in a pan in the oven until the slits start to open up and the nuts give off a delicious aroma. Don’t undercook them, or you’ll never get the peels off; and don’t overcook them, or you’ll be able to use them for practice balls at the driving range.
The hotter they are, the easier they are to peel. Yes, hot chestnuts will burn the skin off your fingertips, but that’s part of the tradition. If you let them get too cool, the shells will bond to the nuts for eternity.
Squeeze the chestnut from each end of the slit, as if opening one of those old keychain coin purses. In a perfect world, the shell will pop open and release a beautiful golden-brown, chewy, sweet nut. (Note: Chestnuts do not live in a perfect world.)
In reality, you have about a 50-50 chance of success. Sometimes the outer shells won’t come off, or they will but the inner papery skins will stick tight. And even if the nuts peel cleanly, they might be moldy. And some, for no earthly reason, will have petrified.
After five minutes of wrestling with a series of hot and armor-shelled or rotten chestnuts, you might get frustrated. But then, suddenly, you’ll hit on a beauty: one that’s easy to peel, tender and bursting with a nutty sweetness that makes you overlook your bandaged thumb and blistered fingers. It’s heavenly.
Are a few perfect chestnuts worth all the work? I think so. But that’s because for me, chestnuts at some level are a metaphor for the holidays: Sometimes they’re terrible, they’re expensive, and they require a lot of work for the modest joy they bring. And yet, no matter how many times I get burned, I look forward to them every year.
If you’re up for a new holiday tradition, give roasted chestnuts a try. Just don’t forget to say “4927” when the cashier plops your chestnuts on the scale.
Trust me: Holding up the checkout line at this time of year can get ugly real fast.

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