Sunday, November 16, 2008

Exploding Chestnuts

There are little bits of chestnuts on my kitchen ceiling. They are hopefully all of the remaining evidence of a culinary catastrophe that occurred here on a recent Saturday afternoon - the day I was hosting a party for some international students from a local university.

Being the over-achieving perfectionist hostess that I am, I started getting nervous about the party days ahead of time. Did I invite too many people? Not enough? Did I forget anyone? What if nobody shows up? What if everybody shows up? What if people don't talk to each other, don't like the food, don't have fun...???? The night before the party I could hardly sleep. Right after breakfast on the day of the party I started cleaning and preparing for the event. I was too nervous to eat much lunch.

When my friend Jiadi dropped off the ingredients for the Chinese dishes she wanted to prepare and gave me hurried cooking instructions before rushing off to her class, I felt a sense of impending disaster. She assured me that it was simple, but I felt very inadequate to complete the task. How would I know when the steamed eggplant "looked done" if I'd never done it before? How could I "season to taste" when I didn't know what the sauteed sausage and vegetables was supposed to taste like? However, with only a few minor snags, the preparations actually went quite smoothly. In between calling to check on who was coming, giving directions to those who needed it, dusting, straightening up, and setting out paper plates and wooden chopsticks, I simmered and stirred and steamed and sauteed like a pro.

It was while I was on the phone with my Indian friend who was explaining to me why he couldn't come that I heard a loud bang inside the oven. It sounded like an oversized popcorn kernel popping. My mother, who had come home from her errands, opened the oven door quickly and shrieked, "Mi-CHELLE! What did you DO?" I calmly told my Indian friend that I had a little problem in the kitchen and hung up to see what was going on.

Apparently, the fresh chestnuts that my friend Jiadi had bought at the Asian market were exploding from the heat and pressure, splattering their insides all over the oven walls! Taking the pan of chestnuts out of the oven, my mom grabbed a knife and started jabbing at them furiously, telling me to help. I grabbed a knife too and started poking holes in the chestnuts as quickly as I could, to allow the steam to escape and keep them from bursting. But it was a dangerous mission. The chestnuts were still exploding as we worked, and soon we had bits of the soft yellow insides on our glasses, in our hair, and all over our clothes. When one of the popping chestnuts burned my mom's hand, I decided we should use potholders and oven mitts to protect ourselves and avoid getting hit by projectile particles. We'd hold the potholders over the chestnuts with our left hands and then jab at them frantically from the side with the knife in our oven-mitt covered right hands.

Finally, the popping stopped. Unsure whether the danger was really past, I kept stabbing the chestnuts with the knife for a few more minutes, until I was sure every last one had a slit in it. Then I stopped to survey the damage. There were specks of yellow chestnut flesh everywhere - on all the cabinet doors, on the walls, on the floor, on the stove and refrigerator, and on the ceiling! With just an hour until guests would arrive, I tried not to panic and quickly began the clean-up process. After scrubbing the whole kitchen and cleaning the inside of the oven, I quickly took a shower and changed my clothes just as the appointed time for the party arrived, so that I could greet my guests at the door with a calm and welcoming smile.

Needless to say, we didn't serve chestnuts at the party. And nobody would have known what had happened, except that it was such a great story I just had to tell everyone about it! And I was sure to point out the tiny yellow spots on the ceiling, the only evidence that remained - a silent testimony to my foolishness.

So if you get cravings for "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" (or in an enclosed oven) during this holiday, please don't make the same mistake I did. Be sure to poke a hole in them FIRST before roasting or baking to avoid exploding chestnusts in your kitchen!

p.s. Here are pictures of the exploding chestnuts and the specks in my mom's hair!