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Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page F02

This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles:

Chestnuts are hard to classify. They're not quite like a nut and not exactly like a vegetable either, though they're high in water content, like vegetables. Highly nutritious, chestnuts have been eaten in the Mediterranean for centuries.

Once a common tree in parts of the United States, chestnuts were attacked by a fungal blight in 1904 that spread rapidly. These days, most of the chestnuts you see in supermarkets are imported from Europe, particularly from Italy. But don't confuse them with horse chestnuts, which are inedible, and water chestnuts, which are used in Asian cooking.

HOW TO SELECT: They are widely available this time of year. Look for plump, firm, heavy chestnuts with dark, shiny shells. Avoid chestnuts that look spotted or moldy.

HOW TO STORE: Although chestnuts can be kept in a cool, dry place for perhaps a week, ideally they should be stored in the refrigerator in perforated plastic bags. It's a good idea to put a damp paper towel in the bag with them.

HOW TO ROAST: You can boil chestnuts if you like, but nothing beats the aroma and flavor that roasting gives them. To do that, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. With a paring knife, score the flat side of the nuts with an X pattern to let steam escape and make them easier to peel. Place the chestnuts on a baking sheet or roasting pan and put it in the oven.

Some chefs suggest scoring the nuts and soaking them in water for 30 minutes to an hour before roasting so that the residual water turns into steam, keeping the chestnuts moist. If you do that, be sure to dry the chestnuts before putting them in the oven. Others suggest sprinkling them with a little water before roasting, or oiling them lightly before putting them on a baking sheet that's been lined with parchment paper.

Shake the pan occasionally to make sure the chestnuts don't burn. When the skins split open at the X, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour, they're done. Eat them as soon as they're cool enough to peel.

HOW TO USE: If you don't roast the chestnuts, you can eat them on their own (peeled) or as an ingredient in other dishes: in chestnut soup, with vegetables in casseroles, in baked goods, in stuffing for poultry or in winter squashes. You can also braise them in water or chicken stock to use them as a side dish. Dressed up with sugar syrup, they are sometimes candied or made into a sweet puree for ice creams and mousses.

-- Judith Weinraub

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