Pristine chestnuts, before the roast...
So I say my goodbyes to all the wonderful farmers, ranchers, gardeners, and all-around awesome people involved in the local foods movement in North Dakota at last weekend's conference in Fargo. I'm rejuvenated, inspired, ready to eat even closer to the land of this great state and support my agrarian brothers and sisters who make their living from the soil. In a word, I am PUMPED.
But then, as I pulled out of the Holiday Inn parking lot, what was my first stop? Fargo's Asian grocery store.
I can't help it. The bulk bags of rice, the amazing array of curry sauces, the packages of I-don't-know-what-the-hell-this-is-but-I'm-buying-it-anyway. I stock up on black bean sauce, sesame oil, ginger candy and Thai chiles. I indulge in a bag of baby bok choy and some tamarind paste. I think about the quail eggs and wonder what I could make with a can of coconut cream. The core of our diet may come from our CSA veggies, backyard garden, and the meat we cull from the fields and lakes of North Dakota, but life's about balance. Even the most die-hard local foodies probably indulge in a mango or banana now and then (except Joel Salatin, I'm guessing).
Mmmmmmm. Chestnut meat.
When I found chestnuts at the Asian market, I basically bought the rest of their stock. The only time I ever had roasted chestnuts was on the streets of a small town in Spain, December 2001. I was window shopping for holiday gifts before returning home from my semester abroad. I could smell those sweet chestnuts from the street vendor a block away. I purchased some for a few pesetas (this was pre-Euro), served in a newspaper cone, the heat warming my chilled hands. They were the most perfect food for that exact moment. Now I had the chance to try to replicate it at home.
Roasted chestnuts taste a little bit like a baked potato, but sweeter. There is no magic to cooking them; just slash 'em (most people cut an X into them, but I'm clumsy, so just a quick slash did the trick for me), soak 'em, and then roast 'em until they are dark with some black spots. We don't have an official chestnut roasting pan, so we used a bucket attached to an iron pole with some duct tape. It ain't classy, but it worked. (We also roasted some in the oven at 400 degrees, which worked fine too.)
Bucket + duct tape = roasting pan
I read somewhere that February is the end of the chestnut season, and to be honest, I don't think our chestnuts were very fresh. They tasted similar to what I remembered so vividly, but were missing that fluffy full baked potato texture. These ended up a little more chewy than fluffy. Or maybe we didn't cook them long enough. Or maybe my taste memory was exaggerated by the romance of holiday shopping in Spain on a chilly winter evening. Regardless, I'm willing to try roasted chestnuts again someday - preferably on a European street corner, purchased for a few coins from a vendor on a chilly winter evening, Christmas lights twinkling all around.
In the meantime, I think I have some good 'ol North Dakota shredded zucchini in the freezer, just waiting for its opportunity to star in the next batch of chocolate zucchini cake...