I became so fixated on chestnuts this year that I woke up the other night to the sound of slight wind and rain, and debated briefly but genuinely whether or not I should get dressed and head out to the chestnut tree and harvest the bounty the weather was sure to have shaken loose.
But first, I have to tell you about how I spat chestnuts out all over the cobbles in front of an Italian street vendor when I was 17.
My mom and I went to Italy together, and one of the first evenings we were there I smelled some kind of hot, indescribable ambrosia. Like baked goods, but not baked goods. Earthy and sweet, but the unmistakable smell of carbohydrates. I followed it to a man selling small paper bags of roasted chestnuts, which I eagerly purchased using my terrible Italian, and reveled in the pure cinema of it. I had barely been outside Olympia, Washington, and here I was in Florence, walking the cobbles after dark as gypsies tried to read my future and gelato shops overflowed with happy laughter. And hot, fresh roasted chestnuts, which I had never had before.
I peeled one – carefully, because they’re hot little fuckers – and popped it in my mouth. And then spat it back out again. Because what I hadn’t been expecting was a mouth full of something somehow both snotty and granular, dirty and sweet, and with a strong overtone of soggy cardboard. My mom laughed until she nearly peed, the vendor angrily shouted at me in Italian as I threw the bag of chestnuts away in the nearest garbage can.
Let’s get back up to the now timeline.
Chestnut trees are not at all common in the Pacific Northwest. We have a lot of buckeyes, or horse chestnuts, which are not edible. There is, however, a famous European chestnut tree in town, and most mornings there is a small flock of Asian ladies out there, silently racing over to each nut as it falls, getting up under each other just right up to the edge of actually shoving one another.
Somehow, this year I knew I wanted to be one of those ladies. I was going to force myself to like chestnuts, whether I liked it or not.
I can’t stop breaking my own kitchen tools, lately.
Okay, so chestnuts. I’ve been reading about them incessantly, learning all kinds of moderately useful facts, such as: they don’t keep well. Some people say they freeze well, some don’t. And lastly, no one mentioned that they are totally fucking impossible to peel.
After I roasted them, and of course this is the hilarious truth: the first one I peeled just popped clean out of it’s inner papery liner like a Boston Terrier squeezing out of a sweater.
Pretty much every other one after that was totally stuck, and disintegrated when I tried to peel them. Nearly two hours after starting I wasn’t even halfway done, my fingers were rubbed raw and I no longer gave a single fuck about eating chestnuts.
In addition to not having been told that I was undertaking a task destined for failure, I was also not told that you shouldn’t roast more than a few at a time, because the only chance you have of peeling them AT ALL is to do so while they are warm. It was only after nearly an hour of research that I read that you should boil them, half a dozen at a time, and skip the roasting all together. THANKS FOR NOTHING, INTERNET.
As an aside: most chestnuts you buy commercially are a crossbreed of a Chinese and European chestnut bred to product massive nuts that peel easily, but do not have an especially pleasant flavor. These are the chestnuts roasted in carts and handed off to poor suckers like 17-year-old Sunday. The tree that I harvested from is a true, rare European chestnut, whose nuts are smaller, sweeter, spicier and DO NOT FUCKING PEEL AT ALL.
I finally started microwaving them in a sealed ramekin, a few at a time, for 10 seconds, and that is the only reason I had enough to cook with at all.
I had grand dreams. I was going to make some kind of Mont Blanc absurdity, but I took a page from my friend Yuko’s book and went for chestnut rice, or kurigohan instead.
And you know what? It was delicious. The chestnuts are very starchy and unlike nuts altogether – the nearest approximation I’d offer is to use a sweet potato or yam diced small and cooked with your rice. The chestnut pieces are soft and creamy and strangely dry, and a little sweet. They are earthy and pleasant, and made a very wintery, hearty pot of rice.
In this instance, I think even the crappy commercial chestnuts will work, if you can find them. A long time ago a Japanese friend told me that chestnut-flavored foods are the same way that Americans feel about pumpkin-flavor: it means fall. It tastes like holidays and cold weather. I think I did actually successfully convince myself that chestnuts are good, in the right context.
if you can find fresh chestnuts – and i mean really fresh, like with intact, shiny, smooth skins – then by all mean boil them and peel them yourself. good luck, i don’t know what else to say. i saw canned chestnut at the Korean market the other day, and i steered clear; with very few exceptions, canned anything is not an acceptable version of whatever food you want. lastly, some parts of the country get vacuum-sealed fresh peeled chestnuts, and others frozen peeled, and i suppose these are fine but I have never tried them. i am serious about just skipping the chestnut dilemma entirely and making this dish with diced sweet potatoes or yams, it will be not exactly the same, but similar. lastly, the kombu kelp is used for flavoring, not for eating. it is not sushi seaweed, it is a thick, dry piece of kelp that has a strong mineral flavor, and is one of the base ingredients in that miso soup you love to get from your local sushi restaurant.
2 cups short-grain Japanese rice
2 cups water
2 teaspoons sake
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chestnuts/pieces
1 – 2 pieces of kombu kelp (optional)
- Whenever you make Japanese rice, you need to rinse the dry rice in running water until the water is clear. This is the number one thing that makes Japanese rice so clean, smooth, sticky and perfect. Drain the rinsed rice in a mesh strainer for 30 minutes after rinsing, then add back to cookpot or ricemaker.
- Add the other ingredients and cook how you would normally cook a pot of rice. I have a fancy-pants rice cooker (that I LOVE LIKE SOME PEOPLE LOVE THEIR GRANDMAS) so I don’t know how you Philistines stove-top cookers do it.
- I will say that the other secret to rice is to let it sit for 10 minutes after cooking (my cooker does this for me, of course) and then to carefully fluff and stir the rice a few minutes before serving. This allows the trapped moisture to evaporate, leaving the rice clean and plump rather than soggy.
October 15th, 2012 | Food Rant, Make It So