Recipe: Roasted Chestnuts
The smells of Manhattan, some good, some disgusting, seem never to leave my head. No matter from how long ago, I don’t forget them. I miss the early morning blood stench of the meatpacking area when I walked to my job at Restaurant Florent. I miss the sour vodka and orange juice smell outside of CBGB’s at 5 a.m. Some smells I was never sure exactly where they came from but I don’t seem to smell anymore. Steam for instance. There doesn’t seem to be much steam coming out of the streets these days. Printing ink? I used to smell printing ink every so often on various corners, especially down in the West Village where Superior Printing Ink had its factory.
Winter smells always strike me as more interesting than summer ones, which tend toward putrid rot and fresh poop. Dried leaves are an aroma of pure beauty. Filthy snow smells divine. A smell I really miss, one that I haven’t smelled on the streets in I don’t know how many years, maybe 15, most likely longer, is hot roasted chestnuts on a cold day. I loved them. I bought them a lot. Hot, burned chestnuts in a bag. We’d eat them on the freezing cold street. It felt very nineteenth-century. Just putting the bag in your pocket made your hands really warm (or at least one of them). Often the same trucks that sold big soft pretzels also sold chestnuts. Now they sell only the pretzels, which aren’t really that interesting, although they do have sort of a good smell. As far as I can tell, there are no more chestnut vendors in Manhattan. Just possibly there was a guy on Fifth Avenue in Midtown until a few years ago, but I don’t get up there much and I may have missed him.
Roasted chestnuts are eaten in Italy to celebrate the new young wine, the novello, sort of like Beaujolais Noveau. It’s not my favorite wine in the world, but when you sip a little and bite into a hot oven-roasted chestnut, you’ll understand the ceremony. My family roasted chestnuts for Thanksgiving. It was a major project, but worth a few sliced fingers to get the job done. To do it, you need to . . .
. . . Preheat your oven to about 400 degrees. Choose chestnuts that feel firm in their shells, not light and shrunken (which means they’ve dried out). Then with a sharp little knife cut a cross into the flat side of each chestnut (Italians love to cut crosses into lots of things). Be careful when you cut into them, as the knife can slip if you’re not concentrating or if you’re already drunk. Then spread them out on a sheet pan, and roast them until they smell sweet and start to open up, usually about 12 to 15 minutes. You may taste one to see if it’s tender. They need to be eaten really hot or else they become hard to peel, so pile them into a cloth-lined basket, set out a few bottles of Chianti, and go for it. If this were all I could have for Thanksgiving, I’d be happy. I’m not kidding.