I can think of few harsher deals in life than a nut allergy: I eat so many nuts, in so many ways, that the thought of being unable to indulge is enough to make anaphylactic shock seem like a blessed release.
Before I start, as a responsible writer, I should probably point out that most nuts are high in both protein and fat. So theoretically they should be eaten in some sort of moderation; but I don’t recall ever having heard of any cases of nut – induced morbid obesity. Anyway, I like to think that the benefits – aforementioned protein as well as various vitamins, minerals, trace elements and general deliciousness – outweigh any negatives. Although I can report, with a regrettable degree of authority, that consuming 1kg of pistachio nuts in a single sitting can make the following 12 hours rather interesting.
To a botanist, a nut is a seed that cannot grow without its husk or shell. But by that definition, most of the things we call nuts in the culinary world are not true nuts at all. Fortunately we are not bound by biology in the kitchen.
Despite the hard time we give our prehistoric ancestors for being all rough and tumble and lacking in finesse, we owe them a serious pat on the back and a nice thank you note for identifying and eventually cultivating all the various nuts and tasty seeds we enjoy today. Considering that most wild almonds are loaded with cyanide, and cashew trees spurt skin-blistering caustic goo at the lightest touch, there must have been a pretty brutal trial and error process along the way.
Many of the more popular nuts are now grown in New Zealand, and when available offer by far the best eating and value for money. Waikato-grown almonds, for example are some of the best I’ve ever tasted, being at once both sweet and savoury with a delicate almondine fragrance.
Personally, with even the best of intentions, most nuts I have in the house end up being eaten –by me – straight from the bag, but given the opportunity they can enhance, and in many cases make, a dish.
Some of my best friends are nuts
Actually that’s true. I seem to be a magnet for the mentally unhinged, but that’s another and mostly non food-related, story. And when it comes to edible nuts I’m none too fussy either – I’ll eat whatever you’re offering. But I certainly have my favourites, and when I can resist my natural inclination towards nut-gluttony, some favourite ways with them too. With a few notable exceptions, nuts are greatly improved with roasting. This can be done on a dry tray in a low oven or in a little oil in a hot pan. If you go with the latter, work quickly and carefully. Nuts burn with a scary momentum; the difference between a perfectly roasted pine nut and a carbonised one is about 30 seconds.
So without further ado, a roll call of my favourite nuts…
Far more pea than nut, the peanut is the seed of a low-growing legume. Once pollinated, the flowers de-frock (drop their petals), lean over and bury their heads in the sand(y soil). A very back to front way of doing things if you ask me.
The little double barrel pods then discreetly swell subterraneously, and are eventually harvested by giant clattering machines. Peanuts are pretty much your entry-level nut. They’re very cheap, and to be honest can be about as dull as a slow day in Hamilton. But don’t let me put you off. Roasted peanuts, either chopped or whole, are vital ingredients in many classic Asian dishes. They add texture and interest to fried rice, are essential as part of the great Malay breakfast dish nasi lemak (coconut rice with a chicken sambal, crispy deep fried anchovies, boiled eggs and peanuts: Oh. My. God!), and just try serving satay without a rich and spicy peanut sauce.
You’re moving up in the world now. The cashew is a definite step up from the pedestrian previous entry, costing a good deal more but tasting a whole lot better. Growing on a tropical tree in the same family as the mango and pistachio, the nut forms almost like an afterthought directly beneath a juicy, fruit-like swollen stem. These cashew ‘apples’ are considered something of a delicacy in their own right, and are used to make a rather beguiling spirit. The steep price of cashew nuts has nothing to do with the tree being difficult to grow and everything to do with the nuts being extremely fiddly to process. Not only is the shell rock-hard, but it spurts forth a highly caustic sap which causes skin blisters and even blindness if you don’t have your wits about you. But you’d have to agree, cashews are worth the effort- especially if it’s not your effort.
The cashew nut is a classic addition to Cantonese style cooking- the mainstay of Chinese takeaway joints and yum char palaces the world over. My favourite use of cashews is in pesto ala Genovese– that classic basil gloop of culinary super stardom. Sure, the recipes invariably stipulate pine nuts, but have you seen the price of pine nuts lately? Not to mention the quality. I guarantee you won’t notice the difference here – if anything cashews improve the texture and bring an extra meatiness to the sauce.
Cashews are also used in a number of Indian dishes – most famously lamb korma – as a thickening agent and to add a sweet, nutty richness.
The true queen of nuts, and just about my greatest food weakness. So pathetically frail is my self control when it comes to pistachios, that I am often forced to plead with my best beloved to take them away. I just can’t break free of that hand-to-mouth rhythm. But I’m really not ashamed. These nuts are about as good as snack foods get. Salty, sweet, and crunchy with a distinctive, almost resinous flavour. And that colour!
Pistachios are grown on a very small commercial scale in New Zealand, but I’m yet to see any of the results. On a (very) amateur scale they are also growing in my garden (pictured). The majority of pistachios sold in New Zealand hail from California, but the best – if you can find them – are grown in Iran. Unfortunately U.S foreign policy has done a very good job of making Iranian produce, including fabulous saffron, halva, sour cherries and pistachio nuts, notably scarce in most of the western world over the last several decades. Thanks to a few enterprising Iranian expats this is starting to change, so shop around.
The characteristic saltiness of pistachios comes from the nuts being washed in a brine solution prior to roasting. It is however possible to find unsalted ‘raw’ pistachio nuts. These are usually pretty pricey but have the added advantage of being shelled- so you’re only paying for pure nutty goodness.
It’s very, very rare that I can control myself long enough to get as far as cooking with pistachios, but when I do, I lean towards luxury. Pistachio gelato is my preferred summertime use: grind about a cup of raw pistachios to a fine powder and soak, overnight in 400mls cream. Use this cream (unstrained) in any standard gelato recipe. The finished product won’t be emerald green or taste of bitter almonds – as is de rigour with most commercial pistachio gelato, but it will totally knock your knickers off.
In winter, when gelato is a bit out of place, try using roasted pistachios in a warm pilaf made with basmati rice, saffron, roast lamb, dried apricots and plenty of sautéed garlic. Serve with a good dollop of garlicky raita and a few extra pistachios.
If autumn had a flavour it would be of walnuts- mellow and warm but with a slight edge of bitterness, and a fragrance like fallen leaves. Walnuts have a devoted following all over Europe and parts of Asia, featuring in both sweet and savoury dishes. The English have a particularly ancient affinity for the walnut, and aged trees of tremendous height and girth grace the gardens of many a stately home. The English, bless them, also coined the following little proverb which manages, with masterful medieval brevity to be offensive to pretty much all living things: ‘A dog, a woman and a walnut tree, the more you beat ‘em the better they be.’ Charming.
Walnuts are almost unique amongst nuts in that they are quite delicious raw – particularly when they’re really fresh. New season walnuts are a true delight and have none of the mustiness or overwhelming bitterness typical of bulk bin offerings. They can be used in any number of sweets, from the classically kitsch afghan to the sublimely sophisticated baklava. But for me the walnut is a dinner nut. Try them lightly roasted and added to a salad of baby spinach leaves, gorgonzola picante and pear – I know it’s a bit last decade but I still love it. Walnuts also work very well in various pestos (pesti) – Rocket pesto made with walnuts and pecorino is particularly pleasing.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a walnut tree you can make your own pickled walnuts -try these pureed and folded into whipped cream – a show stopping addition to any bread and dip platter. But my favourite use for green walnuts (and the one that has me scouring my neighbourhood every January) is nocino – Italian walnut liqueur. Split about a kilo of green walnuts and cover with vodka. Add the zest of 1 lemon, a quill or two of cinnamon and a couple of cloves. Seal and leave outside in the sunniest corner of your garden until midwinter. Strain the liquid (it will now be blacker than midnight) and add strong sugar syrup to taste. This spicy, chocolaty, almost medicinal elixir is just the drop on a cold winter’s night.
It may come as a surprise to you to know that the almond is the seed of a pithy, inedible (except when very young) peach. As I mentioned earlier it must have taken some pretty hardcore experimentation to select the first almond cultivars, as the wild form of the nut usually contains large quantities of cyanide. Curiously, the flavour we think of as almond comes from either the bitter almond (an inedibly bitter and mildly toxic nut banned in many countries) or apricot kernels (a slightly safer and similarly flavoured alternative). One or other of these is used (in very small quantities) in amaretti biscuits, marzipan, amaretto liqueur and pure almond essence. True dessert almonds don’t taste of much at all really; they’re just sweet and nutty.
I use a lot of almonds in biscotti, sprinkled over salads and in some oil-based pasta dishes. The Spanish make a rather exquisite, dazzlingly white almond soup which is served ice-cold.
Native to Queensland, mostly grown in Hawaii (with New Zealand making some admirable inroads), and bloody delicious. Trouble is, I’m yet to find a recipe that does any sort of justice to these delicately-flavoured nuggets. So leave well alone I say and eat them au natural. They also yield the most underwhelming ‘gourmet’ oil known to man.
Fiendishly expensive, frequently rancid and not nearly as indispensible as they like to think. As far as I’m aware pine nuts are not being grown commercially in New Zealand, but I’d be thrilled if someone could correct me.
Delicious? Yes. Can I be bothered with all that fiddly peeling? Hell no. Europeans have an unhealthy obsession with hazelnuts. They will sneak them into anything if you don’t keep a close eye on the kitchen. This is best seen through the almost religious devotion Italians show towards Nutella. Nutella gelato I can handle. Nutella ravioli is a nut too far.
Make your mind up – are you a nut or are you a rather dry lump of kumara? Because of this ambiguity, I can never quite decide if I like chestnuts or not. They taste great when eaten on a London street corner on a freezing January evening, but when removed from these atmospherics chestnuts can be pretty ho-hum. They do, however, make an outrageously good Italian jam, confettura di castagne, which is really more like soft, earthy fudge. Best eaten as dessert with a healthily slug of cream. Note: Always prick chestnuts before boiling or roasting unless you want to deal with a pot or oven full of small hand grenades. I’ve heard of oven doors being blown off their hinges. Note again: Chestnuts are an enormous pain in the backside to cook and peel. Let me know if you do it more than once.
So that’s my take on nuts, in an um… nut shell. So I’d love to hear what nuts you use regularly, how you use them and gosh, why not? – Some recipes too!