I bought my first brown paper bag of roasted chestnuts in New York City on a bitterly cold winter night more than 50 years ago.
I’d walked from West 63rd Street and Central Park West to 51st Street and Sixth Avenue to talk to a renowned theatrical photographer, Roy Blakey, about shooting my first NY headshots and portfolio for me. As I walked, the ice crystals embedded in the wind gusts felt like tiny razor blades cutting my face.
I met Roy at the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink. He was in the locker room, lacing up his skates.
Walking back to my room at the Westside Y, I saw some folks gathered around a street cart. The vendor was selling roasted chestnuts—the smell from the charcoal fire and the charring shells was hypnotizing. I joined the group and bought a bag full. As it warmed my hands, I watched how others were peeling away the shells and eating theirs. I followed their lead and tasted my first bite of roasted bliss. I’ve loved roasted chestnuts ever since—my winters aren’t complete without them.
Even without a fire, you can roast chestnuts at home that taste very much like the New York street vendor’s offerings. And the secret is soaking them for two or three hours before roasting and high heat to char the shell. Here’s the process I use:
- Starting with fresh chestnuts and a very sharp knife, cut an X on the pointed end of each nut—going through the outer and inner skin—and about a quarter of the way down the sides. There are chestnut knives available that make the process easier.
- Soak the chestnuts in a bowl of water for a few hours. The soaking helps them steam and makes peeling them easier.
- Spread them in one layer flat side down on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or foil and then into a preheated 450-degree oven.
- Roast for roughly 25 minutes depending on the size of the chestnuts. Rest for 10 minutes, wrapped in a damp kitchen towel.
- As soon as cool enough to handle, peel, eat, and enjoy!