How to Forage for Chestnuts
If you want to add a bag of chestnuts to a Christmas gift basket, or if you love roasting fresh chestnuts over an open fire or including their unique flavor in your cooking, why not forage for them in the fall? The sweet taste and floury consistency of chestnuts is transformed by being roasted, and they are so versatile that they taste good in both sweet and savory dishes.
Sweet chestnut trees may be found in woodlands, parks and deciduous forests. Once you know what to search for, they are relatively easy to find: look out for medium to large deciduous trees with glossy, dark green serrated leaves that turn yellow and drop off in fall as their prickly husks, each containing three edible nuts, fall to the ground. The bark on the trees often has deep furrows or fissures that spiral up the tree trunk, and they can grow up to 100 feet in height and to 6 feet in diameter. They also need a mild climate and adequate moisture for a good nut harvest, and dislike excessively wet and cold habitats. Sweet chestnut trees shouldn't be confused with horse-chestnut trees, which produce inedible nutlike seeds called conkers in spiky cases.
Gathering the Nuts
The nuts begin falling in September, but these first fruits often aren't yet fully ripe. The ripest nuts usually fall between October and November, and should be plumper and a deep reddish brown color all over, except for the tip. As soon as the husks hit the ground, start collecting them to prevent the nuts from deteriorating. Step gently on the husks to open them, and wear gardening gloves to extract the nuts. Discard any that are damaged or cracked. Store the nuts for up to a month in a cool, dry larder, or hang them up in an onion bag to keep the air circulating around them. Always cook the nuts before eating them. They shouldn't be eaten raw.
Use a sharp knife to make a small incision at the tip of each nut, or they will explode as they heat up. Cut through the shell and just into the flesh.
Roast the nuts in the oven or on an open fire. To cook them in an oven, roast them for about half an hour at 350 degrees F or until you can smell their sweet aroma.
If you want to roast the nuts over a fire, you'll need a cast-iron skillet. Place the prepared nuts in the pan and shake them occasionally over a medium flame for about 15 minutes.
Allow the nuts to cool for a short while until you can handle them easily without burning your fingers. Remove the shells and the papery, bitter, inner skins before eating or using in a recipe.
If you can't forage for fresh chestnuts, buy them fresh from the grocery store throughout the Christmas season, or purchase them dried, canned or vacuum-packed from stores or online and use them in your recipes.