Winter Chestnut Roast

I won’t hide my agenda behind this recipe. This is a forlorn love letter to the mythical American chestnut tree. For the uninitiated, the American chestnut was once the king of the Appalachians. The redwood sized relatives of the beech family used to tower across the mountains like Tolkienesque tree-herders. Their massive, straight grained and hardwood trunks not only once provided an incredible source of high-quality timber, but the tree itself was a pillar supporting the ecology of the forest. Every animal from insects, fish, birds, squirrels, deer, turkey, and even bears relied on the tree. Naturally, they fed humans for centuries.

In the late 1800s this all changed. An infectious fungus was accidentally introduced, for which the trees had no defense. Soon they were all but extinct. Growing up in the Appalachians, the American chestnut was something of a dendritic style of cryptid to me. I would scan the forest every time I was out and my dad would roll his eyes when I swore I spotted one in the distance.


Some great work has recently been done to cure and restore the species to their former population. My hope is this recipe can contribute in some small way to the awareness and public desire to see them restored to their former glory. Maybe you’ll even contribute to the American Chestnut Foundation.

In the UK, the nut roast is a remnant of extremely lean winters during great wars. In modern times it has been resurrected as a vegan alternative to meat served at a Sunday roast. But I say this is neither a struggle meal nor a meat replacement to be looked at with wishful eyes and thoughts of a juicy prime rib roast. In its chestnut form, this is a main meal to be savored as such, and that’s a tiny hill I would be proud to die on. This recipe is expertly crafted (if I can say so myself) for a seasonally winter affair. Some ches-notes before we start:

If you can get your hands on real American chestnuts for this recipe you will see the difference. They are smaller and sweeter than their foreign brothers and only those with nasal allergies might say they taste indistinguishable. However, it is nearly impossible to find the native variant so there will be no demerit for using European or Chinese chestnuts for this. They are all delicious.

Roasting whole chestnuts is not only the best flavor-wise for this recipe, but also the most seasonally authentic way to experience it. Once they’re roasted, peeling the shells off is very labor intensive so it’s a great excuse to get your friends and family involved. Buy about twice as many as you need for the recipe (their peeled weight is about half of when they’re in their shells) and that way you can snack on them as you crack away. If that sounds too labor and mess intensive, just buy the precooked bag or frozen ones.

To roast, slice an X on the round side of the nut (the flat side down) with a sharp knife all the way through the shell just until it hits the flesh. The shell is more leathery than hard, so be sure your knife is sharp.

Cooking methods (Chestnuts):

Roast in the air fryer on 180 C / 350 F for 20 mins, shuffle them halfway through.

Bake in the oven 180 C / 350 F for 30 min, rotate the pan halfway through.

Roast over an open fire on a cast iron pan for 10 min, stirring semi-frequently.

Grilled (Gas or charcoal) in a cast iron pan with the lid closed for 15 mins, stirring semi-frequently.

Once done, the X you made will peel back. Place them in a kitchen towel, bundle it up, and beat the snot out of them on the kitchen counter or gently with a rolling pin to loosen. Once they’re just barely cool enough to handle, gather around the pile and start shelling. Make sure you get the hairy inner skin layer off to. If they cool down too much, they get hard to peel again so just put them back in their heat source for another minute or two just to heat it back up.

The Recipe

One large brown onion or multiple shallots or a leek. Any allium will work, as long as it’s roughly a cup once cut up. Cut into a small dice, 1/4” or pea sized.

One large stick of celery cut into a small dice, 1/4” or pea sized. If for some reason you don’t like celery it’s not essential.

Cooking oil - vegetable, olive, ghee, butter. Whatever you want. About two tablespoons.

Two large cloves of garlic, minced finely.

Fresh mushrooms - roughly 120g or about as many as you can hold in cupped hands. Any mushrooms will do and ironically, being in the UK, I use chestnut mushrooms for this but literally any mushroom will suit except the fancy ones with delicate flavors because they will get lost. Small diced or just roughly minced, they will cook down quite a lot.

Dried porcini mushrooms - about 15g but I’ve never measured this in my life and I wouldn’t even if you threatened me.

White wine - dry, about a glass but I pour big glasses.

Stock powder or cube - enough to make about a half pint of stock but don’t add it to water. Veggie is preferred but chicken, veal, or beef will work if it’s all you have on hand.

Roasted chestnuts - 200g when cooked and shelled. About as much as you can fit in cupped hands with the shell still on. If your knife skills are good and your cutting board big enough, you can roughly small chop these as well or if you can just throw them in the food processor and blitz them a few times until it’s pea sized. I love the flavor of a smoky, fire-roasted chestnut in this but as above this is not necessary.

Breadcrumbs - about 80g, two fistfuls, or just use two slices of bread and cut it up with the chestnuts.

Additives - Roasted pumpkin seeds or pepitos are fantastic. Or really any other nut like walnuts or pecans cut similar sized. Add about a handful. Dried cranberries if you’re my parents. Cooked sausage ground and broken up is also great.

Flavorings - Parmesan cheese grated finely. As much as you want, I would never tell you how much cheese to use. Parmesan also helps bind things together when it cooks. Classic herbs are dried rosemary, sage, and thyme. Fresh works too. Chili flakes if you want. Whole fennel seeds or caraway would be fantastic if you like the flavor. Fresh ground black pepper is a must.

Salt to taste.

Step one: 

Heat the wine in a small pot until it boils then add in the porcini mushrooms and stock powder and turn off the heat. Soak the porcini mushrooms for about 30 minutes before you start step two. You can take this time to cook and peel the chestnuts if you haven’t already but I would suggest doing that the day before because it’s a lot of work.

Step two: 

Chop the onions and celery and sauté in a pan on medium high heat with the oil. They don’t need a lot of color, just to be cooked through. While it’s sautéing, mince the garlic and cut the mushrooms. Don’t forget to stir the onions and celery every now and then while you cut. Once the onion is cooked through, add in the garlic, stir three times, and then add the mushrooms. Cook all of that down as much as you have patience for. Take this time to remove the soaked porcini mushrooms and cup them up finely.

Step three: 

Mix all the ingredients in a big bowl, including the porcini wine soaking liquid. It should be able to stick to itself like making a snowball. If it’s crumbly, add in a bit of water at a time until it’s good to go. If it’s too liquid, add breadcrumbs a bit at a time until it’s not. Salt to taste, nothing in this recipe is raw so it’s ok to eat a spoonful before baking to make sure it’s salty enough.

Step four:

 Let the mixture sit for a while to get to know each other while the oven heats up to 350 F / 180 C. Butter or oil your preferred pan. For this recipe I used a muffin tin but a square loaf or even a 6” cake pan would work too. It’s also very pretty if you double the recipe and put it into a patterned bundt pan, but just make sure it’s very well coated in butter or oil. Pack the mixture tightly into your chosen form. Bake for 20 minutes until it’s nice and brown and bubbly on the sides. Turn out onto a wire cooling rack and let for a few minutes before serving.

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I am a southern boy at heart so serving with collards (blanched then fried in butter with garlic and cider vinegar) is a staple. Pictured with mash potatoes but mac and cheese would be welcomed on this plate with open arms. Sour cranberry sauce is crazy good with it too. Gravy is classic but I served mine with beurre blanc because it looked nice in the photo and is just as tasty. My version is made by boiling a cup of the same white wine and a splash of vinegar with a shallot (chopped in as fine of a brunoise as you can manage) until the liquid reduces by more than a half. Pour the hot liquid in a blender and blend with a stick of cold salted butter until white and frothy.