I have a hankering for roasted chestnuts, the sort I used to buy on street corners in London and at fairgrounds and marketplaces around Italy, sold bundled up in newspaper, slightly burnt on the outside, steaming hot, salty and nutty. The men wielding the braziers made it look easy, but achieving that level of perfection when cooking chestnuts over coals is no easy task. The charcoal braziers were lit hours in advance and when the coals were just right, the chestnuts were added and roasted slowly. My hurried attempts have resulted in half-cooked nuts that have been difficult to peel and tannic to eat. Fortunately, they can be cooked in the oven, and also boiled if you want to turn make a purée.
However you cook them, you must make a cut on the shell, either a cross or a straight line, so steam can escape. Failure to do this results in exploding chestnuts (hot and dangerous). Use a small sharp knife, and you might find a serrated knife easier, make a small incision to start, then apply pressure on the knife once it has taken grip of the chestnut shell. Cut a slit around the middle of the chestnut, making sure you go right through the hard skin (it’s more fiddly, but you can cut a cross). Transfer chestnuts to a shallow ovenproof dish – I use a Swiss roll tin (jellyroll pan). Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F). Bake chestnuts for 25-35 minutes, or until the shells have burst and you can see the chestnut flesh inside has coloured a little. Cover nuts with a cloth and leave for 10 minutes, then, as soon as you can touch them, peel away shell and brown skin.
For this recipe don’t waste time trying to keep the chestnuts whole as they are going to be chopped. Roughly chop chestnuts. Heat a large frying pan (skillet) over medium heat. Add a large tablespoon of butter, let it melt and sizzle then add chestnuts. Cook for several minutes until golden. Season with sea salt and black pepper. Stir through 1 teaspoon thyme leaves, then serve.
Use the crumble as a topping for baby carrots or roasted parsnips, or sprinkle on top of a parsnip purée and serve with roast beef. I also love the crumble tossed through crisp baby Brussels sprouts (halve them if large), or try it crumbled over a homemade hummus, but perhaps best of all, make a roast tarragon chicken with a creamy tarragon sauce and sprinkle with chestnut crumble. Delicious.