Roasted Chestnuts

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It is my privilege to introduce Kim, an avid recipe tester and cookbook enthusiast. Having lived extensively in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, Kim loves to make Middle Eastern cuisine when she is not testing recipes for our cookbook. – Diane

Until recently, chestnuts were a figment of my wintertime imagination- a mysterious nut that was apparently roasted over an open fire, while someone named Jack Frost nipped at your nose. Strangely, it was not until I moved to Egypt that I first tasted chestnuts. When Cairo or the southern Nile villages cool off for their short winter, chestnuts get roasted in along the streets in hand-pushed carts, often accompanied by sweet potatoes or other tasty street snacks. Little old men in little wool caps yell out “Castana! Castana!” enticing passers by to sample their charred chestnuts, which are sold by the kilo straight off the fire.

When I moved to Lebanon many years later, I found chestnuts prepared in the same fashion. On many trips to Turkey I tossed the same piping hot chestnuts between my hands under the snow flurries of Istanbul, cherishing the warm, unique flesh held within an annoying casing of shell and husk. Today, when I was asked to test a raw chestnut salad dressed in peppery vinegar, I was intrigued by the concept of a chestnut being served as anything but a piping hot street treat.

Part of the fun of eating roasted chestnuts is trying to break through the charred shell only to be faced with removing the clingy husk. Sometimes, a chestnut miraculously and easily falls out of both, revealing shiny, brain shaped nutmeat. That fun challenge of peeling the charred chestnut is certainly missing while preparing bammuchim. Peeling a raw chestnut is not fun, but I persisted because the recipe promised me it would be worth it.

When I assembled the final salad: a mix of Korean chives, sliced chestnuts and cucumbers over a bed of thinly sliced Asian pears, I saw a new side of the chestnut. Maybe this salad tastes traditional and homey to a Korean, but to me, it was a new modern spin on the chestnut, revealing potential beyond the open fire and cold winter nights. The salad is bright, and the sharpness of the vinegary dressing pairs well with the slightly sweet crunch of the chestnuts and cucumbers. The green onions provide an herby freshness, and the flavorful Asian pears provide a nice contrast to the dish. I would love to serve this unique dish to friends and family and show them a different side of the chestnut.

To prepare chestnuts as they do in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, choose fresh chestnuts that don’t have air between the shell and the meat. Slice an X into the shell, allowing room for the chestnuts to vent once they heat up. Place the chestnuts in a skillet over a medium high flame, and pour in ¼ cup water. Cover the skillet and bring the water to a boil, gently shaking the pan until the water evaporates. The shells of the chestnuts will start to blacken and crackle, but continue to shake the skillet until the shells are mostly charred. As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off the shell and husk, and enjoy!

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