These beautiful, shiny brown nuts start showing up in piles in the fall and winter. I never had chestnuts growing up - they just weren't a staple in my household. The first time I had them was in Paris. As I walked across a bridge crossing the Seine, there was a man with a roasting cart selling hot roasted chestnuts by the bag. I bought a bag and wandered around the streets of Paris peeling of the shells and chewing the sweet nuts.
Chestnuts must be cooked before eating to kill off the tannic acids that make them bitter. They are enjoyed in Asian and European cuisine, and have been making a comeback in to American cuisine in the last few years.
At one point, chestnut trees grew profusely across the US, but some Asian chestnut trees planted in Long Island in the early 1900's brought with them a fungus blight that decimated nearly all of the American chestnut trees by the 1950's. Only a handful of trees survived in California and Washington. Replanting efforts that started in the 1930's continue today. The surviving genetic material from American chestnuts was crossbred with disease-resistant Asian chestnuts and these are the chestnut trees we see today. The American chestnut industry is still bouncing back, and since demand exceeds supply, the US still needs to import chestnuts from Europe and Asia.
Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area can pick chestnuts locally at a number of chestnut farms that are listed in this link.
Roasting chestnuts at home is incredibly easy. Simply score an "X" shape on the flat side of the nut shell, put in a cast iron skillet on the stove, and shake back and forth until the shell at the "X" starts to peel and the chestnut meats are warm and soft inside. Canned chestnuts are especially good for purees and desserts. Peeled chestnuts stored in vacuum sealed packages are great for stuffing, breads, and risotto.
Chestnut Stuffing - Saveur
Braised Pork with Chestnuts - About.com
Chinese Turkey with Eight-Treasure Stuffing - About.com
Chestnut Cheesecake - Epicurious
Chestnut Soup with Sourdough Sage Croutons - Epicurious
Chestnut Risotto with Butternut Squash - Epicurious
Word of Mouth: Marron Glacé
(Image: Kathryn Hill)