les marrons chauds et le vin chaud
(roasted chestnuts and mulled wine)
The holiday season in Paris is magical: children with their faces pressed against the windows of Galeries Lafayette and Printemps watching the marionettes; l’avenue des Champs-Élysées flanked with lights; people lined up out the door at G. Detou to buy marrons glacés; the skating and winter activities at L’Hôtel de Ville; the festive holiday teas at Dalloyou and Ladurée; the spice cakes at Mariage Frères. The list goes on. The entire city is tastefully decorated and the spirit of the season spills out of the pâtisseries and speciality shops into the streets where the smell of les marrons chauds (roasted chestnuts) and le vin chaud (hot wine or “mulled wine”) permeate the air. The smell of the two instantly transport me to Paris. This year you can bring these holiday traditions into your own home, without the security checkpoints and the (unusual and early) Parisian snow.
Roasted chestnuts and mulled wine are wonderful, simple treats you will want to make year after year. The chestnuts take only about 15-20 minutes to roast in the oven and the wine simmers stovetop for about 45 minutes. If you do not want to use wine, you can use cider instead. Below are a few notes about purchasing, storing, and preparing chestnuts. The mulled wine recipe and notes are in a companion post under “recipes”.
Chestnuts can be found in your local grocery store or ordered online. There are several varieties of chestnuts, but the ones you see most often are the marrons (the round chestnuts used for marrons glacés (sugar-iced chestnuts) and the chatanges (chestnuts which are flat on one side). In the States, you rarely see the fresh marrons.
When buying fresh chestnuts, choose chestnuts with shiny brown shells and without blemishes (which indicate that they have been stored too long or improperly). Chestnuts should be sold in the refrigerated produce aisle, and if they are not, be cautious about your purchase because they perish easily. Chose chestnuts that are firm but give slightly when you score them. If the chestnut gives too much, that means that it may have begun to spoil (sometimes they smell a little musty indicating they have gone bad). Similarly, do not purchase chestnuts if they rattle indicating that they are really old and dehydrated. Store chestnuts in the refrigerator where they will last a few weeks.
When roasting chestnuts you must always score the shell or the chestnut will explode due to the steam created under the shell. I find that a modest incision is best as it traps more steam inside the shell and makes the skin easier to remove (if the nut is dehydrated either due to age or over-roasting, the skin will be very hard to remove). You can tell if a chestnut is dehydrated if the creases in the nut have collapsed and the nut looks withered. You do not need to add any oil to the nuts before roasting them in the oven. However, once peeled, I like to garnish the chestnuts by adding a touch of nut oil and a couple granules of fleur de sel. Olive oil is too strong so I avoid finishing with it. Serve the chestnuts while they are warm.
A couple of equipment notes, chestnut knifes are great because the short, pronounced blade makes it easier to score the shells. However, a paring knife works fine. There is a pan made for roasting chestnuts made by de Buyer (poêle à marrons) which you can purchase online or at kitchen supply stores such as Sur La Table. However, while the pan is great (and preferable for grilling the chestnuts), chestnuts roast just fine in a normal oven-proof pan or on a baking tray.
Lastly, if you do not roast all of the chestnuts, there are many ways to use them. They can be sautéed, braised, boiled, puréed, grilled, and steamed. They are wonderful additions to soups, stuffings, sauces, and accompaniments to all kinds of game as well as veal, beef, bacon, and poultry. Chestnuts are substantial enough to serve on their own as a side-dish and historically have been used as a vegetable due to their meaty texture and high starch content. Chestnuts pair well with other Fall and Winter flavors: sage, thyme, winter squashes, mushrooms, onions, brussels sprouts, kale and swiss chard, grapes, raisins, oranges, and apples (to name a few). Naturally sweet, chestnuts are wonderful in a variety of desserts and baked goods. Chestnut honey is divine.
Je vous souhaite un bon appétit !