Nuts About Nuts get cracking: It's true . More and more cooks are shelling out for texture, flavor, creativity.

March 06, 1996

Things are definitely getting nuttier in the kitchen these days, what with all the pecans, peanuts, walnuts, macadamia nuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews and hazelnuts showing up in everything from salads to seafood.

Nuts are showing up with grilled chicken in a salad of pears and baby greens, as a crust for a savory smoked salmon cheesecake, or with bananas, raisins and brown sugar in a quick bread.

Fusion cooking, which blends ethnic and regional ingredients and techniques, and the popularity of Thai flavors, are part of nuts' new appeal, said Denis Manneville, owner of Weber's on Boston in Canton, where nuts frequently can be found on the menu.

Roslyn Sellman, Mr. Manneville's executive chef, said: "The Thai influence is up and coming. We do a lot of that." She has used a peanut vinaigrette on seafood salad, crusted swordfish and marlin with macadamia nuts, and tossed walnuts into a green salad. Last Friday she appeared on television to demonstrate how to make pistachio-encrusted tuna. Chefs like the flair that the crunch and the unexpected flavor boost of nuts give a dish, she said. "And obviously it tastes great."

Mr. Manneville also said rising levels of consumer sophistication make diners more receptive to chefs' creativity with all sorts of ingredients. "More and more people are traveling," he said. "They taste something somewhere else and they are looking for it in Baltimore."

Nuts figure prominently in the new cookbook "Hot Chicken," by Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison (Ten Speed Press, 1995, $17.95), from the roasted pecans in a chicken salad with pears, to a Chinese chicken salad with hazelnuts, to smoked chicken with candied almonds, cashews and pecans, to baked pecan-encrusted chicken.

Dramatic is the word they use most to describe these combinations, citing the mix of flavors and textures. In most cases they roast the nuts beforehand to intensify the flavor.

"I do think nuts are fantastic in all kinds of dishes," Mr. Carpenter said. "We have so many kinds of nuts available, all over the country. It's just an example of the fantastic explosion in ingredients" showing up in specialty stores and in ordinary supermarkets.

"The world is getting smaller and smaller, transportation is better, and we have been hugely enriched by immigration," he said. As different ethnic groups grow, they tend to create more restaurants and then more markets featuring their characteristic foods, he said.

And nuts themselves are varied and versatile, he said. "I'd have a hard time finding a nut I didn't think was terrific with salad or with chicken. I do like a difference in texture," such as the pairing of crunchy, rich-tasting nuts and soft, subtle salad greens, he said. "It's nice to use them as a contrast. I wouldn't use a buttery-tasting macadamia nut in an entree with a rich buttery sauce. But take something as simple as a piece of sole that's been sauteed and sprinkle on a few toasted almonds, and you have a wonderful contrast."

People who are burned out on no-fat, no-flavor foods are looking for exactly the kind of punch nuts can give a dish, said Cherryl Bell, a registered dietitian who works with Diamond Walnut Growers of Stockton, Calif., a walnut processing and marketing organization. "People are starting to come back around and saying, I'm tired of taking everything out of my diet and having it taste bland." A sprinkle of nuts packs a big taste punch.

Ms. Bell also cited the rise of "speed-scratch" cooking for nuts' new popularity, and said a good example is the standard green salad, brought home in a box from the grocery store. "Add some roasted nuts and crumbled cheese and you've got a gourmet salad."

Diamond hopes to make things easier for consumers with a new product called Toasted Walnut Toppings -- walnut pieces that are toasted and come in a shaker can about the size of a soda can.

Sandra McBride, communications manager for Diamond, said: "We did some research on how people use walnuts and discovered that about 80 percent of the recipes call for toasting. Toasting is an important part of the flavor and it's a convenience step that we can do." People are spending less time on meal preparation these days, she said, and "anything you can do to fit into that reduced time frame is a good thing."

"Funny you should ask about nuts," said Frances Price, Baltimore chef, dietitian and cookbook author. "I'm having people over tonight and I'm having my famous 'red' salad, with walnuts and feta cheese." The recipe, a variation on the version of the recipe in her new book, "Healthy Cooking for Two (Or Just You)" (Rodale Press, 1995, $27.95), uses beets marinated in raspberry vinegar and walnut oil with minced shallots.

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