Are You Nuts?
For the record, I only act that way but what I’m referring to here is the cornerstone of mankind’
s earliest diet. Along with the occasional captured rodent and harvested fruits, nuts made up a
significant part of the diet as it’s packed with calories and protein and you didn’t have to plan an
elaborate hunting scheme. Just pick, roast and crack. From those early beginnings all the way up
to modern man’s favorite spread, peanut butter, nuts are here to stay.
But is it a Nut?
Arguably, modern man’s favorite nut isn’t really a nut at all. The peanut actually belongs to the
legume family as like most of the other legumes, they harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria that
benefits both the peanut plant and the bacteria. In fact, they don’t even grow on trees but are
subterranean “nuts” but unlike other legumes, what we consume are root based and not bush
Early in life I consumed my fair share of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or more likely,
peanut butter and banana sandwiches, first with the processed variety of peanut butter that was
stable at room temperature – and it had to be Skippy’s – then later the true variety of peanut
butter that had to be refrigerated and mixed before spreading. Of course, once I hit college and
took several food safety classes, my peanut butter consumption dropped to a minimum, not
because I lost my taste for the gooey stuff but because peanuts that aren’t stored properly can
harbor mold of the Aspergillus species which then produce aflatoxins which in large doses can
cause immediate liver failure but in chronic low doses can cause liver cancer. Since then, the
gooey nut spread I’ve reached is more likely to be almond butter.
What’s a Drupe?
No, it’s not that dopey kid that sat at the back of the class that didn’t seem to be mentally
present throughout the course of the day. And it’s not those ancient people who supposedly
made Stonehenge. A drupe or stone fruit has a fleshy outer mesocarp that surrounds a hardened
endocarp (stone or pit) that surrounds a seed. In the case of apricots, plums and peaches, we
consume the fleshy mesocarp, in the case of coffee, we roast the endocarp and brew it and in the
case of that other”nut”, the almond, we consume the seed. And in the case of the Gochiso
Gourmet, I consume it ground to almond butter, ground and squeezed to almond milk or
consume it roasted and seasoned then added to my morning oatmeal for a little fat and protein
I now enjoy almond butter more than peanut butter not just because of the absence of
aflatoxins but almonds are actually a lot healthier option since they have very little saturated
fat. You notice how natural peanut butter noticeably hardens in the refrigerator? That’s due to
the higher percentage of saturated fat in peanuts whereas almond butter remains runny even
after refrigeration because of its high polyunsaturated fat content. And almond butter does
have a pleasurably natural sweetness not found in peanut butter.
Plus almonds don’t just constitute my breakfast faire, I also always keep a can or two of smoked
almonds for my Pea Salad with Smoked Almonds (http://the-gochiso-gourmet.blogspot.
com/2008/03/pease-porridge-hot-pease-porridge-not.html) and a can of Marcona almonds
for my Sauce Romesco. I also keep a package of toasted sliced almonds for my version of Cucina
Restaurant and Wine Bar’s Zucchini Carpaccio.
Another favorite drupe is the walnut – again, it’s the seed of a drupe that like the almond
contains a considerable amount of polyunsaturated fats but unlike the almond also has a fair
amount of inherent bitterness. Bitterness that helps balance rich, creamy cheeses or balances the
sweet and sour qualities of a good vinaigrette on a salad especially when the salad also contains
the flesh of drupes like grilled peaches or nectarines. And while I prefer my chocolate chip
cookies without walnuts, I enjoy walnuts added to dessert crusts and toppings for the
contrasting crunch they provide and the slight bitterness to balance the overt sweet and rich
qualities of dessert.
Are There “Real” Nuts in the Food World?
Other than certain columnists for the Nichi Bei Weekly, there are “real” nuts in the world such
as hazelnuts, chestnuts and acorns. Botanically speaking, true nuts are fruits with a hard shell
and an internal seed where the shell doesn’t release the seed – it must be liberated by someone
or something. Like the black footed Iberico bellota pig that gorges itself on acorns or the folks
at Nutella who release those hazelnuts to create that delectable cocoa based spread that’s great
on bread, crackers or simply eaten straight from a spoon!
I personally have never sampled an acorn but do occasionally indulge on Iberico bellota ham
which in my humble opinion is one step above even the best Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto
San Danielle since the fat literally melts in your mouth. And I only say “occasional” because of
the cost – if those Power Ball numbers ever line up, “occasional” will become “regular”.
With chestnuts, other than simply adding to a stuffing or cooked with kuromame for the
Oshogatsu, I still need create that Italian dessert, Monte Bianco which is simply a chestnut and
chocolate puree topped with whipped crème to imitate the appearance of Mont Blanc. Especially
since chestnuts are now readily available roasted and peeled. Twenty-something years ago while I
was in graduate school, we still roasted and peeled chestnuts and every year while peeling, the
chestnut skin would invariably find its way under my fingernail… OUCH!!! Bottled roasted and
peeled variety make life so much simpler… and painless.
Great for the Hoildays
Since these “nuts’ are flavored with the spices of Thanksgiving and Christmas, they make great
starters when drinks are served, mini presents for work companions or even “reminders” for party
guests who just don’t know when to leave… “here, take this home with you”… Just pack them
in 1 cup portions in festive wrapping. If you don’t have any worthy workplace companions or if
your party guests all know when to leave, just unwrap them and enjoy yourselves…
Sweet and Savory Spiced Nuts
3 Tbsp sugar
1 & ½ tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
¾ tsp salt
1 large egg white
2 & ½ cups walnut halves
2 & ½ cups pecan halves
Preheat oven to 350 F with rack in middle. Lightly coat a sheet pan with non-stick spray.
Whisk together sugar, spices and salt in a small bowl. Whisk egg white in a medium bowl until
frothy, then stir in nuts. Add spice mixture and toss to coat.
Spread nut mixture in 1 layer in sheet pan. Bake, stirring once or twice, until dry and well
toasted, about 20 minutes. Loosen nuts from pan, then cool completely.
Nuts keep in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 week.
This is a great “munchable” during the holidays to keep your party guests from wandering into
the kitchen when you’re completing your meal preparation. It’s also great served on a cheese
board especially with my Parmesan Gelato with Aged Honey and Red Wine Poached Pears… but
that’s another column…