Nat King Cole first started crooning about chestnuts roasting on an open fire in the 1940s, and the nostalgic scent of these plump, shiny beauties wafting from street corners remains a comforting symbol amid the frenetic swirl of holiday shopping and shindigs December usually promises.
Simply baking the chestnuts (don’t forget to score each one and give them a good soak before opening that oven door) is a surefire way to please guests, as is folding them into stuffing or using them to dot a chocolate cake. But chestnuts are rather versatile, which means chefs around the country are also using chestnuts to lend a festive touch to their winter dishes.
For Greg Guevin, chef at Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was boredom of “the grilled vegetable platter ubiquitous to restaurants, the generic default option that gets no love” that led to him reach for chestnuts. His imaginative lasagna (pictured above) shuns pasta noodles for sheets of shaved potato that are layered with a blend of roasted chestnuts and root vegetables like carrots and parsnips. “The sweetness of the chestnuts makes the dish,” he says. Guevin amplifies it with a deep cremini mushroom-garlic-thyme jus deglazed with red wine “that helps keep the lasagna light,” he says. He then sparingly covers the “pasta” with a pecorino Mornay sauce, essentially a cheesy bechamel.
Dining at the Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. in St. Louis is typically a hearty affair, revolving around fried clam rolls, catfish po’ boys and chess pie. Yet Chef Kevin Nashan provides some much-needed breathing room with the bright chestnut-strewn broccoli salad on his menu. The toasted chestnuts, which add what Nashan calls “a sweet, earthy element” to the dish, are brought together with blanched broccoli, shrimp lardons and a last-chance-to-use-them-before-the-year-ends mix of pumpkin, bourbon pickled cranberries and apple cider vinaigrette. Peacemaker adds country ham to the melange, but vegetarians can easily do without the meat. A spin on the classic — and decidedly unhealthy — raw broccoli salad with mayo, cheese and bacon, it was inspired by one of Chef de Cuisine John Messbarger’s favorite rituals. “He loves family potlucks and this is his go-to dish,” says Nashan.
Just like the grilled dates and butternut squash filo pies he showcases at Opa, Philadelphia chef Bobby Saritsoglou makes a nurturing chestnut stew, kastana stifado, that pays homage to Greece. Slow simmered with the likes of crushed tomato, cinnamon, raisin and leeks, it’s served over white rice. “This is a northern Greek dish that we usually eat in December, especially at Christmas. I’d have this often with my family in the States but mostly when I visited my aunt in Greece,” Saritsoglou reflects. “To me, the aroma of chestnuts — vendors are roasting them over coals in Greece right now — signals the start of the holiday season.”
Alia Akkam is a freelance writer and former Food Network intern who covers the food, drink, travel and design realms.