L.A. doesn't have that romantic tradition of street vendors serving up roasted and salted chestnuts in a simple paper cone when autumn sets in. You have to go to New York or France for that. They're in season though, so if you want to taste them hot from the fire in Southern California, you can make them yourself. Happily, you can find them at local farmers markets or order them online now from Correia Chestnut Farm and Girolami Farms.
The low moisture, yellowish nut (that totally looks like a little brain) is inside a beautiful, shiny shell that has to be roasted or boiled to remove. Nutcrackers don't work on them. The nut itself has a barely sweet taste and a dry, grainy texture. Once shelled they are perfect old time snacking on a cool autumn day. They're also typically baked in to cakes, as part of a turkey stuffing, paired with chocolate or made in to soup. All things you should try.
At the turn of the last century there were an estimated four billion American Chestnut trees, so finding the delicious nuts was super simple. Tragically, with the introduction of a foreign chestnut variety brought to what is now the Bronx Zoo in 1904 that brought with it a disease, almost every North American tree was killed by the 1940's. (PSA: Think about that one the next time you want to casually sneak plants, fruit or vegetables past customs or at the border. You may be transporting killer blights.) It's estimated that there are less than 100 non-commercial trees left now. Sheesh.
A terrible loss and of course explains why we don't see them everywhere. Lucky for us, some people are working to change that, including third-generation California farmer Harvey Correia. He sells two varieties the Italian Marroni and Colossal and they are available for order now. Get yours before they run out, since they absolutely will.
When you get your hands on some, they're simple enough to prepare. Maybe time consuming, but simple. Use a sharp knife — or if you really go mad for them, a chestnut knife – to cut an “x” on the flat side — this helps the moisture escape and prevents explosions, which are fun, but messy. Roast on a sheet pan at 350F for 30 minutes or boil for thirty minutes in lightly salted water. Cool slightly, peel and enjoy. Then imagine you're in Paris, only the weather is better.
Follow Rachael Narins on Twitter @chickswknives