It is the greengrocer's lament: Piles of delicious autumn chestnuts and artichokes that go unsavoured. Customers, particularly those without Italian heritage, automatically place them in the too-hard basket instead of into their shopping baskets. "We don't sell enough chestnuts and artichokes because people find them daunting," says Joe Toscano. He should know. His family has been in the greengrocer business in Melbourne since the 1930s and though he's approaching retirement age, Joe still rises at 1.45am four days a week to source the best produce for his three stores.
Now his daughter Joanne Toscano is doing her bit to try and help familiarise Australian home cooks with how to prepare some of the nuts, fruits and vegetables enjoyed by her ancestors in southern Italy. She is the author of the recently released Toscano's Family Table and gives a weekly market report on ABC Melbourne radio on Saturday mornings. Here are her tips on simple ways to enjoy chestnuts.
Chestnuts have a hard outer skin which is made pliable through heating; you can roast chestnuts in the oven, over coals or on a barbecue, boil them, or even microwave them. The Toscano family like to roast chestnuts because of the lovely flavour this method of cooking imparts on the already sweet, creamy-textured nuts.
1. Choose the right nuts
It's helpful to know that mid to late-season chestnut varieties (mid-April until end of August) are generally easier to peel than early-season chestnuts.
2. Split the skin
The hard outer skin of chestnuts needs to be penetrated before cooking or the nuts may explode. Using a sharp knife, make a slit in the skin from the crown (pointy end) at least half way down the nut. (If boiling, make a smaller slit to prevent too much water flooding into the nut).
If roasting, the method you use to split the chestnut's skin doesn't matter too much. Everyone in the Toscano family has a different approach, points out Joanne, including a cousin who simply cuts off a chunk of skin. The opening will grow bigger as the skin heats up. Provided you've bought a good variety, the skin should come away easily after cooking.
While Joanne says the best way to enjoy chestnuts is to roast them over hot coals while camping, she uses her oven when she has guests coming over. Some people swear that using a very hot, closed-lid barbecue imparts the best flavour.
After she has split the skins, Joanne puts them into a hot oven (220-250C) for 20 minutes (small nuts) or up to 30 minutes (larger chestnuts).
The nuts are ready to peel when the skin has turned a deeper shade. They should have taken on a lovely roasted appearance but not be burnt black anywhere. If roasted for too long, the nut flesh can become brittle and break apart easily when peeled.
Allow roasted nuts to cool just enough to handle. Nuts must be peeled while the skin is still hot, before it can toughen up again.
If you've used an easy-peel variety, the skin and inner-membrane should come away fairly easily. There is a flaky inner-membrane (edible) that can be tricky to remove in some varieties.
- Don't eat nuts that are discoloured in the middle.
- If boiling, you may want to remove about six nuts at a time from the pot to peel so that the skin on the remaining nuts remains hot.
- Steve Manfredi's five ways with chestnuts
- Chestnut soup and more
- Oven roasted chestnuts with brussels sprouts
Chestnuts have a lovely sweet and nutty flavour that is great in salads, used in stuffing for roasted meats, delicious in cakes and tarts, and ideal when pureed in soups.
The Toscano family's favourite way to enjoy chestnuts is to let their guests do the hard work. Just-roasted chestnuts are placed into a big bowl, which is passed around. Each person takes a handful, peels the nuts and sprinkles the flesh with salt flakes. The nuts are then washed down with a glass of red. It is a ritual the family enjoy for a couple of short cold months each year.
Toscano's Family Table: Recipes and writings, by Joanne Toscano, Slattery Media, $50.