New-crop chestnuts from Italy have shown up at the Jean-Talon Market, Milano and some of the city's finer green grocers in the last couple of weeks. They'll be around until early January or so. You'll find the best deals at the market and will pay through the nose at the green grocer's ($4.99/lb. at Exofruits). That said, beware of unbelievable bargins: a couple of years ago a friend and I split a 10-kg sack we picked up at the market for $25. The nuts tasted like paste. The neighbourhood's squirrels didn't seem to mind, though.
I love chestnuts just about any way I can get 'em: boiled with red wine and bay leaves (see below); braised with herbs; ditto and puréed to serve alongside poultry and game or as the basis for a rich soup; in a ragout with fennel, pearl onions and walnuts; boiled, puréed and sweetened for incorporating in cakes, soufflés and chocolate mousses; braised with duck; braised with red cabbage; in stuffings for goose and turkey; and so on.
The only downside is that they're a royal pain to peel. First you slit the shells. Then, after pre-cooking, you remove the shells and peel the skin--an arduous process requiring strong fingernails and quicks of steel (once, after peeling a particularly big batch I couldn't type for two or three days). The pre-cooking method can make a big difference in peeling; while most cookbooks suggest boiling them 8 minutes or baking them in water for 5 minutes, the best way I've found is to deep-fry them 2-3 minutes. The important thing is to work with small batches because they must be peeled while hot.
While the slitting is easy enough to do with a very sharp knife, a few years ago I picked up a nifty gadget at Quincaillerie Dante, on Dante St. a block or two southwest of Jean-Talon Market: it's a bit like a pair of pliers except the buisness end has a cup to hold the chestnut on one arm and a serrated blade on the other. Made from red plastic, it cost all of $5.
Here's my favourite way to make them. An advantage of this prep is that each diner peels his own. The recipe is adapted from one in Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and is perfect for the kind of cold and snowy weather we've been "enjoying" of late.
Chestnuts Boiled in Red Wine, Romagna Style
Three or four servings
1 pound fresh chestnuts
1 cup rough, young, dry red wine*
2 whole dried bay leaves or 3 fresh bay leaves (the latter can be had from Chez Louis)
Wash the nuts in cold water and soak 20 minutes to soften the shells. Slit the shells by making a horizontal cut completely across the middle of the domed side. Take care to slit only the shell, not the meat (or your fingers).
Put the nuts in a pot with the wine, a pinch of salt, the bay leaves and just enough water to cover. Cover and boil over medium heat until the nuts are tender, usually 30 minutes to 1 hour. Uncover the pot and allow the liquid to boil away until only a couple of tablespoons' worth is left.
Pour into a big bowl or serve directly from the pot along with more of wine used in cooking.
*Hazan recommends a Chianti. I usually opt for a less expensive red from Tuscany or the environs: at $12.75 Umani Ronchi's bottom-drawer Rosso Conero is a good buy (and their $16.20 San Lorenzo is more than $3.45 better). Have also enjoyed it with the $14 Marcillac "Le Sang del Païs", a rustic Massif central red made from the obscure fer servadou grape.