You might be surprised at how many people have never cooked with chestnuts, much less roasted them over some cozy open fire. And then again, maybe you wouldn't, being one of those who buy the nuts only to decorate your holiday fruit and nut bowl.

It didn't used to be that way. There was a time before the great chestnut blight, which began in 1904, when the forests in the eastern United States swayed with millions of acres of hardy chestnut trees. Now we are forced to import more than $20 million worth of the nuts from Europe each year. So abundant are the chestnuts in Europe that they are widely used as a vegetable. Europeans braise them, combining the sweet nut with vegetables such as brussels sprouts, onions and mushrooms; pure'e them; simmer them in soups and, most popularly, rice them and and fold them into puddings and cre~pes.

Maybe we should, too. Chestnuts are unlike other nuts in that they have very little fat, roughly 2 to 3 percent compared to the whopping 65 to 75 percent contained in a pecan or walnut. They are 40 percent carbohydrates and 10 percent protein.

Whenever cooking chestnuts be sure to slash or make an x-cut in the shell so the nuts won't burst when exposed to high temperatures. To roast, place in a pan in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes until they feel soft, or roast them in a perforated tin, or in a chestnut-roasting pan (available from specialty shops) over an open fire, shaking the pan often for even cooking. Peel and eat.

To peel for use in recipes, again make an x-cut and place nuts in a pan. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer gently for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, but leave the chestnuts in the hot water. Remove a few chestnuts at a time and using a pointed knife, loosen the shell and peel off.

To peel off the inner membrane, leave the chestnuts in the hot water as you extract each nut to peel the outer shell (If the water cools, bring it to a boil again). Then heat the nuts in vegetable oil in a skillet, stirring, until the membranes become crisp. Rub each nut between paper towels to remove all the remaining membrane. You might have to use a paring knife to scrape off some stubborn bits. Alternatively, chestnuts can be roasted at 350 degrees for 8 minutes, or deep-fried for 2 minutes, then peeled.

After peeling, the chestnuts should be cooked gently just until they are tender in broth or milk, according to your recipe. Take care not to overcook or they will crumble.

It is easier to buy canned chestnuts already peeled -- but it is a matter of price. At Safeway, fresh chestnuts sell for $1.99 per pound while a 15.5-ounce can of Fauqier Marrons Entiers Naturels sells for $4.49. Some would say spending an extra $2.50 is worth the convenience.

Martha Stewart suggests making a pure'e by simmering eight cups of peeled chestnuts, three stalks of celery, and a large bouquet garni of parsley, a bay leaf and fresh or dried thyme in 3 1/2 cups of beef or veal stock for about 20 minutes until the chestnuts are tender but not mushy. Drain the chestnuts and reserve the cooking liquid. Discard the celery and bouquet garni. Pure'e the chestnuts in a food processor, or a food mill if possible. Add butter and season with salt and pepper. Add a pinch or two of sugar if desired. Serve hot.

So the next time you walk by the chestnuts, note that one pound of unshelled nuts will yield about 3/4 pound of shelled nuts, which is enough for 2 to 3 servings. At home, chestnuts will retain their freshness for up to six months if stored in plastic bags in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator or a root cellar. If you have butter, salt and pepper in your cupboard, here is a recipe for a hardy veal and chestnut stew.

Express Lane List: veal, onion, garlic, chicken broth, white wine, thyme, chestnuts, rice BALKAN VEAL AND CHESTNUT STEW (4 to 6 servings)

2 tablespoons butter

2 pounds boned veal shoulder, cut in 1-inch cubes

1 medium-size yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1 3/4 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup dry white wine

4-inch sprig of fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 pound shelled, peeled chestnuts

Cooked rice for serving

Melt butter in a large, heavy kettle over moderately high heat, add veal and brown well on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to moderately low, add onion and garlic, and stir-fry 5 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients except chestnuts, cover, and simmer 1 hour; add chestnuts, cover and simmer 30 minutes longer until chestnuts and veal are tender. Serve over rice.

From: "The New Doubleday Cookbook," by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna (Doubleday, 1985).