Nuts used to mean winter; almonds and raisins in small dishes waiting to tempt you after Christmas lunch; sweet chestnuts at Halloween; mixed nuts and dried fruit prepacked as a convenient trail mix for a winter walk or at your office desk. These are old favourites for many of us. There is sound sense in this. Nuts are a concentrated food, full of protein and fat, capable of storage for long periods, ask any squirrel! They were an ideal winter food for our forbears before the days of overwintering stock animals, with the extra advantage of being gathered free.
What can nuts offer in terms of good nutrition as part of an everyday balanced diet, especially one that includes lots of raw vegetables, salads and juicy fresh fruits? We sometimes hear “nuts are so indigestible” and “you only need a few because they are so oily” and from vegetarians “what can you make with them apart from nut roast?”
Let’s set the record straight and take a fresh look at the wide and wonderful range of nuts which is readily available nowadays. There are unlimited ways to prepare and use them, and we will give some recipes, but first, how to choose the best nuts?
Shells Mean Better Quality Nuts
The best way, for freshness and food value, is to buy them in the shell, or at least whole (not split, flaked, or ground into powder). Too much bother to shell them? There are one or two exceptions, but read on. When nuts have been commercially shelled the tender inner covering of the nuts is left unprotected and while they are tossed about in the machinery to sort and pack them, this is damaged, exposing the creamy white flesh of the nut beneath. The problem with this is that when the air gets to the oil containing flesh of the nut, it begins to oxidise, and quickly becomes rancid. This process destroys the food value and is linked with cancer. You can find good quality shelled almonds, hazelnuts and sometimes walnuts and pecans, which although commercially shelled still have most of the inner skin intact. When you have picked them over to discard the broken ones, these are fine to use, although it is best to test them by taste also; rancid nuts taste horrible by the way. Most pine kernels, which are very oily, are so rancid by the time you buy them, they almost taste sour!
You can also keep them in good condition by storing them in the fridge or freezer. This way they stay fresher than when they are forgotten at the back of a cupboard. Because of their fat content, and also the length of time they have taken rattling about en route to the packing warehouse and then your local shop, means that brazil nuts, for example, are best bought in the shell. In the UK most nuts are more plentiful in November and December, especially cobnuts from Kent, sweet chestnuts from Spain, walnuts from France, and of course the wonderfully more-ish brazil nuts from South America. If you can find room in the fridge or freezer they will keep for several months without deteriorating, though their keeping qualities depend on how ripe they were when they were picked, and how long they sat on a shelf in an overheated shop before you got them home. For these reasons, the large bins of newly imported nuts in the shell sold loose in the supermarkets are often the freshest, unless you have a good independent greengrocer near you, who gets them direct from the wholesaler. Try a few from time to time to check how they are keeping. Like most food, if left too long, whether in a cupboard or the freezer, they will deteriorate.
You can use nuts in very many ways, for both sweet and savoury dishes, for creamy sauces, pates, ground to a fine meal and scattered over a fresh salad or a dish of steaming hot vegetables, added as thickening and flavouring to a hot soup or a fruit smoothie. You don’t really need recipes once you catch on to the various ways of preparing nuts, but here are some favourites. Note that exact quantities are not always needed for dishes which use fresh natural foods, which gives you more options to follow your own tastes.
Soak some plump cashews for four or five hours and discard the water. About 300 grams dry weight will serve four people for a starter or a dip. Put the softened nuts in the food processor and reduce to a smooth creamy texture. Put in a glass dish and chill until ready to serve as a dip with strips of red pepper. The contrast is delicious. Alternatively line four small dishes with spicy greens such as watercress, rocket or mizuma greens, and serve with hot wholewheat toast or dehydrator crackers.
Walnut Loaf. four to six servings
Soak 500 grams walnut halves overnight. Discard the soak water. Reserve a few halves for garnish and chop the rest with a knife or in the food processor until in tiny pieces. The aim is to keep some texture. Set aside in a large bowl and grate three or four medium carrots and five or six celery sticks by hand or in the processor. Finely chop one large sweet ripe red pepper into small dice, and mix all these lightly with the walnuts. If you want more flavour add a dash of soy sauce, or even a dash of chilli sauce will complement the distinctive rich walnut taste. Mix thoroughly, press into a bowl and leave for the flavours to mingle for a few hours. When ready to eat turn out on to a flat dish and serve with a large green leafy salad. This is a perfect protein dish for lunch or supper, and excellent as part of a low carbohydrate diet for weight loss. It has the double advantage of being meat free, and because it is all raw still has all the plant enzymes to help in digestion. Even your meat eating friends may not catch on that this is not only raw but completely vegan.
Fruit and Cream
Wash a big bunch of organic red grapes and smother with lashings of vanilla flavoured thick cream!
The difference is that it is fresh almond cream. Almonds are the best nuts for digesting, for helping to rebalance acidity, and for versatility. They should however be thoroughly soaked for about twelve hours; after discarding the soak water, soak them again for another twelve hours. This is because the chemicals in the brown inner skins contain an acid harmful to humans. This is partly why people can find nuts indigestible. Other reasons are not chewing them properly, and eating them without soaking. Not only are they easier to digest after soaking, they taste more delicious. When the nuts are thoroughly soaked, you can pop the brown skins off by squeezing them between finger and thumb. Do this if you are preparing this for young children or someone sick or with poor digestion. If you have robust digestion you can leave the skins on. Tip them into the blender with a few drops of vanilla essence and a little water, and blend to a thick cream. Pour some over each person’s serving of red grapes, and eat at once. You can make it a thinner consistency by adding more water, and serve sparingly as a “milk”. Children of all ages love it. Just remember there is a lot of fat and protein in it so a glassful can be a meal in itself. Kept up to two days in the fridge, it is a readymade pick me up when people come home from work or school, and doesn’t have the quickly up and quickly down again energy bursts which happen with toast or chocolate!
Hazelnuts have that rich flavoursome tang, and wonderful texture, which are complemented in this savoury main dish.
500 grams will serve four to six people
Choose undamaged hazelnuts and grind most of them as finely as possible. A small coffee or nut grinder is ideal. Reserve a handful to chop into tiny pieces, for a contrast in texture. Put them all in a mixing bowl. Onions form the flavour contrast in this dish, and you have two options. Either grate in the processor or chop finely by hand, two large mild onions. Red onions are ideal.
Alternatively if your guests are not quite ready for a completely raw dish, soften four large onions in the minimum of oil. You need twice as many onions if cooking them! If making the raw version add the raw onions to the ground and chopped nuts. If you have chosen the cooked version leave the softened onions in the pan.
The best vegetables to use for bulk are carrots. Coarsely grate some organic carrots. You will need the about double the volume of the nuts and onions combined. It is not crucial. Better to use a lot than not enough. Add them to the raw ingredients in the mixing bowl.
For the cooked version add the carrots to the warm onions in the pan and stir occasionally while they soften and blend with the onions for a few minutes.
The final ingredient is a big bunch of curled parsley. Chop it very finely indeed, and add it to the mixing bowl. If you are cooking the dish, keep it on one side for garnish just before serving.
To complete the raw savoury, thoroughly mix all the ingredients, adding a dash of soy sauce if you wish. Form into one loaf or individual patties, and serve with a simple salad of chicory leaves mingled with little gem lettuce leaves. These perfectly complement the flavours and textures, but any leafy salad is fine. For the sauce, blend five or six large tomatoes and serve separately. They don’t need any additions. The fresh flavour on its own is perfect.
To complete the cooked version, mix the softened onions and carrots with the nuts, add flavouring, and press into an oiled loaf tin. Put into a preheated oven at 200F for about half an hour. While it is cooking, either make your own tomato sauce with onions, tomatoes and garlic, or take a short cut by gently heating a bottled one. Turn out onto one end of a big serving dish, ready warmed, and heap the other end with freshly steamed broccoli and cauliflower florets.
Scatter the loaf with the chopped parsley just before you bring it to the table, and serve the warm sauce from a heated jug. The colours and aromas will seduce even the most devoted steak eaters, and if you serve enough vegetables they will forget to ask for potatoes, rice or other carbohydrate. Also notice that the recipe does not use the traditional filler of breadcrumbs, so it is fine for people wishing to avoid wheat.
Forage for Free
If you enjoy these recipes think about PYO next time.
Plan an autumn expedition through a hazel wood or a sweet chestnut grove, to catch the native nuts at their best. Keep a lookout while you are out and about in the summer for hazel hedges and tall sweet chestnut trees. Children will love gathering them; they have an inborn instinct for finding free food. You will need an adult in the party with a stout pair of working gloves to peel off the thick green spiky shells of the sweet chestnuts. Don’t confuse them with the shiny conkers from the horse chestnuts though. Conker shells don’t have these sharp spikes, and usually split open when they hit the ground, so it is easy to tell them apart. Conkers are big fat rounded nuts whereas in the UK at least, sweet chestnuts are slimmer and roughly heart shaped. Prick them and pop them under the grill, peel them at once, dip them in a taste of sea salt, and eat them while hot.
Written for The FRESH Network magazine, hence the cooked version of one of the recipes, to tempt some of their transitioning readers.