Pardon me while I sing a few bars of "The Christmas Song," more readily known by its opening lyrics "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire."
I couldn't help myself as I sat in front of the fireplace yesterday, shaking a pan filled with chestnuts resting on hot embers. I decided to make a chestnut, sausage and apple stuffing for my Thanksgiving turkey and wanted to get a jump-start on the chestnuts.
Chestnuts are used much more commonly in Italy, where towns even hold chestnut festivals (sagre de castagne) in the fall. We visited one such town - Soriano - in October, where chestnuts were roasted on huge mesh-bottomed pans out in the streets. After about twenty minutes of vigorous jostling back and forth by a Soriano resident, where many of the chestnut skins fell away from the nutmeat, the chestnuts were then dumped into a straw basket and handed out free in small paper bags to any and all nearby.
Maybe it was the atmosphere as much as the open fire roasting, but these were the best chestnuts I had ever eaten.
We also visited some friends who live just outside of Rome and gathered dozens of chestnuts from their trees, hoping to bring back some untreated nuts to start our own cluster of chestnut trees. Check back with me in the spring to see if they have germinated.
But I digress.
OK, so back to the fireplace, which is where I sat yesterday, shaking my chestnuts in a pan punctuated with holes on the bottom. Don't ask me where I got the pan. I've had it for a couple of decades. Don't worry if you don't have such a pan, you can use a cast iron skillet. No fireplace? No problem. You can cook chestnuts in the oven too. First, with a knife, cut an "x" on the chestnuts and soak them in water for about 15 minutes. Do this if you're roasting on an open fire too. Drain the chestnuts, put them on a cookie sheet or pan and roast in the oven at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, shaking them once or twice. Peel them, using a napkin or paper towel to protect your fingers from the heat and blackened outer skins. There's also a very thin inner skin that needs to come off too. Sometimes it comes off easily, but sometimes it's a battle between you and the chestnut. For all of you who think this is too much fuss, I recently discovered that you can buy already cooked and peeled chestnuts in a glass jar at the supermarket. Whichever way you decide, once you've got the chestnuts, you're ready to make the stuffing.
Chestnut, sausage and apple stuffing
1 16-ounce package Pepperidge Farm cornbread stuffing mix (or any other brand or type of bread)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced celery
1 pound roasted chestnuts, broken into pieces
2 apples, diced in large pieces
2 1/2 cups chicken or turkey broth
1 stick butter, melted
Remove the casings from the sausage and saute in the olive oil, breaking it up into clumps. Add the onions and celery and saute until the meat is cooked and the vegetables are limp. Add the chestnut pieces and swirl around to mix the flavors. Pour the stuffing mix into a large bowl and add the sausage and chestnut mixture, plus the apple pieces. Add the broth and the butter, using more broth if necessary to make a moist stuffing. This will make more than enough to stuff a 12-pound bird with enough left for a casserole. Bake the casserole at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes.