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Winter Cooking Showcases Nuts

These versatile ingredients add flavor and texture to dishes savory and sweet

Fine Cooking Issue 30

The holidays and winter months are here, so nuts will probably show up several times on your shopping list. Traditional fall and winter ingredients, most nuts are at peak freshness and availability right now. Nuts add rich flavor and crunchy texture to both sweet and savory dishes—tossed whole into salads, chopped for breads and pie crusts, ground for Southeast Asian sauces, stirred into cake or cookie batters, and folded into ice cream. And a big bowl of mixed nuts on the table to crack seems to stimulate after-dinner conversation.

Taste before buying, if you can

Nuts in the shell are usually the very freshest and best-tasting. The shell keeps out light, insects, air, and mold, all of which cause nuts to dry out, turn rancid, or both.

When choosing nuts in the shell, look for whole, clean shells with no blemishes, holes, or cracks. Pick up a nut and shake it. Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, and peanuts rattle freely in the shell if they’re old and dry.

When choosing nuts out of the shell, look for plump, unbroken nutmeats. Avoid those that are discolored or shriveled. Airtight containers preserve freshness and flavor, but they make it impossible to taste the nuts until you leave the store.

When you are able to taste, choose nuts that are sweet and crunchy. Rancid nuts have a bitter, unpleasantly oily taste. A rancid nut can ruin an otherwise perfectly prepared dish, so always taste several nuts from the batch before you use them. But be careful when you taste black walnuts. Their characteristically strong, exotic flavor may seem wrong if you’ve never had them before (and black walnuts have rock-hard shells that are hard to crack, so they’re always sold shelled, in broken pieces). 

Store all nuts in a cool, dry place. Shelled nuts, unless they’re vacuum-packed in cans, should be wrapped tightly and stored in the fridge or freezer. Nuts keep best in the shell, but all nuts gradually turn rancid, even when frozen, so don’t store them for more than a few months in the freezer.

Roasting brings out flavor

A light roasting in a moderate oven until fragrant and lightly golden will accentuate the flavor of most nuts. Just be careful not to overdo it because darkly roasted nuts will be bitter and dry. Roasted nuts turn rancid more quickly than raw ones, so use them within a few days after roasting.

Skinning isn’t always a must; it’s more a matter of aesthetics. If you’re grinding almonds or hazelnuts for pastry, the skins incorporate into the mixture, and many cooks like the look of tiny specks of skin. With coarse chopped nuts like hazelnuts, which have a loose skin, pieces of skin tend to separate from the nut, so skinning them results in a cleaner look and taste.
To skin hazelnuts and even walnuts, roast them lightly and then remove the loose skin by rubbing a handful of nuts at a time in a dishtowel. For almonds, pour boiling water over the nuts, let them sit for several minutes, and then slip off the skins.

Grinding is easiest to do in an inexpensive drum-type nut or cheese grater. Nuts have a high fat content, so if you use a food processor, pulse briefly and pay close attention or you’ll end up with nut butter.

Shelling peanuts doesn’t require a nut-cracker, but for hard-shelled nuts, I still rely on my old-fashioned hinged nut cracker. A nut pick helps coax out reluctant walnut or pecan meats. And freezing Brazil nuts for a few hours seem to make their hard shells easier to crack.

English walnuts, the walnuts we see most often, originally came from Persia. Walnuts turn rancid quickly, so shell them only as you use them. Walnuts are delicious after dinner with cheese, pears, apples, and a glass of port.

Black walnuts are native to America; they’re more closely related to hickory nuts than to common English walnuts. Their flavor is strong, but in small amounts, they add exotic interest to cakes and cookies.

Macadamia nuts have a subtle, rich flavor, with a texture that’s more creamy than crisp. Use them like chopped walnuts in breads, cakes, and cookies, substitute them for pecans in a pie, or serve them with drinks, lightly toasted and salted.

Pecans are another native American nut, with a rich, sweet flavor and a tender, almost crumbly crunch. Try a few tablespoons finely chopped in your favorite pie dough recipe. Toss them into a salad of romaine and blue cheese, sprinkle them over candied yams, or fold them into a poultry stuffing.

Peanuts are great roasted and eaten out of hand. Be cautious when substituting them for other nuts in baked goods. The strong flavor that stands up so well to hot chiles in Thai and Chinese cooking can overwhelm other ingredients.

Hazelnuts, also called filberts, are delicious ground in pastries, tortes, tarts, and ice cream. Add chopped hazelnuts to a winter fruit salad, or dress steamed asparagus with a hazelnut vinaigrette and then sprinkle on plenty of roasted, chopped hazelnuts.

Almonds are at their peak harvest in November, just in time for holiday baking. Use them whole, sliced, slivered, chopped, or ground in cakes, cookies, candies, tarts, pies, and puddings. Their milky-mild flavor pairs beautifully with vegetables and fish, too.

Brazil nuts have deliciously rich meat. Most often cracked and eaten after dinner, they’re also good in fruitcakes, cookies, and candies. Use them to stuff dates or prunes. For easy slicing or chopping, first simmer shelled Brazil nuts in water for five minutes.

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