11/26/2012 02:06 EST | Updated 01/26/2013 05:12 EST

Roasting chestnuts, noshing on nuts a tradition during holiday entertaining

LONDON, Ont. - Do people actually roast chestnuts on an open fire?

Yes, says Linda Grimo of Grimo Nut Nursery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. But the easiest way to do them is on the barbecue and they're "fabulous," she says.

Nuts have been part of the holiday tradition for centuries, with both religious and pagan origins cited by various sources. Although cooks tend to incorporate them in dishes throughout the year, they are a staple of holiday entertaining. Stores carry a lot more bulk nuts in the shell and various companies produce jars of shelled nuts, already roasted and seasoned.

As for the chestnuts, which can also be cooked in the oven, on the stovetop or even in a microwave, Grimo says the most important step is to cut an X in the top of each nut before cooking. "Otherwise, they'll explode."

A slotted pan or chestnut pan, basically a long-handled frying pan with holes in the bottom, allows even heat distribution. She cooks the scored nuts over medium heat for five to 10 minutes (some recipes advise 15) and shakes the pan every minute or two to move the nuts around. That's it.

She also likes to saute peeled chestnuts in a frying pan. If you boil them briefly first, the nuts will "pop right out" of the skin, she says. She cooks them in butter for at least 10 minutes, adding sugar to caramelize them for a sweet treat or garlic or onions if she wants to add them to vegetable or meat dishes.

Brenda Preszcator of St. Marys, Ont., has been making nuts and bolts as a holiday treat since her kids were small, and although they're now adults, it's a tradition they still insist on.

"One batch makes a big roasting pan full and sometimes I'll make four batches by Christmas if the kids (and grandkids) are all home," she says. They're a special favourite of her son Joel, who lives in Vancouver, and she sends him a supply every year. They seldom last till Christmas.

It is somewhat curious that the tradition of nuts has survived since most of the nuts consumed by Canadians are imported and available year-round.

The only two types grown here commercially are hazelnuts and heartnuts (Japanese walnuts) and those in very small quantities. Peanuts also are grown, but they're not really nuts. They're a legume and part of the bean family.

It's a mystery to Grimo. "We've known for 20 years that the hazelnut and heartnut (as well as chestnuts and walnuts) are commercially viable here. Nuts are so easy to farm and very profitable," she says, but farmers have been slow to pick up on the opportunity.

However, interest is definitely increasing. The Society of Nut Growers established by her father, Ernie Grimo, in 1972 has grown to about 350 members in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and P.E.I., although many of them are hobbyists.

Interest was spurred significantly when Ferrero, the large Italian confectionery firm best known for Ferrero Rocher, a hazelnut and chocolate sweet, built a production plant in Brantford, Ont., in 2006. It has been so successful that it is doubling in size within two years, says Grimo.

It's not that the company has become a market for Canadian hazelnuts because they need exponentially more nuts than Canadian producers can supply. But the firm is "providing an awareness of the market," Grimo says.

Store-bought nuts in the shell or in jars can generally be stored at room temperature, but freshly harvested nuts have a high moisture content and need to dry out for a while.

Grimo advises people who pick black walnuts, for example, to hang them in a burlap sack in the furnace room for about three weeks, preferably with a small fan near them to circulate air through the bag. Chestnuts are the exception and should always be stored in the refrigerator or a cool root cellar.

Almost all the nuts sold by The Nut Man, a chain of confectionery stores in Western Canada, are imported, says co-owner Allan Jonas, who is based in Calgary. He says the retail and online business and the company's dealers are crazy busy at this time of year.

They sell 15 to 20 different types of nuts, but the "big three" are pistachios, cashews and walnuts. Almonds are another top seller. Many of their pistachios, pecans and almonds come from the U.S. Cashews are grown in many areas of the world, including Brazil, India and Vietnam.

Jonas says nuts at Christmas "are an ongoing tradition and one that continues to grow because people see nut products as a healthier choice."

Doug Cook, a dietitian and director of the Toronto chapter of, an online community of dietitians, agrees nuts are nutritious. Nutrients include unsaturated fats, vitamins E and K and minerals such as potassium, magnesium and selenium.

They "are associated with lower rates/risk of many chronic (or) degenerative diseases" such as heart disease and diabetes and help to maintain levels of good cholesterol. Cooking does not diminish their nutritive value, says Cook.