Going nuts in many ways Variety: These little kernels add crunch to baked fish, give a flavor boost to salads and bring a taste of the exotic to cookies.

December 31, 1997|By Kathy Casey | Kathy Casey,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

People all over the world delight in eating nuts roasted, raw and ground. We enjoy them out of hand and in a wide variety of sweet and savory foods from breakfast to snacks to dinner to desserts.

Nuts are dry fruits or seeds that generally consist of an edible kernel enclosed in a shell. That shell can range from medium-hard, thin and brittle to woody and tough. The seeds of a few other plants that are not strictly nuts are also considered nuts for culinary purposes.

Nuts are sold shelled and unshelled in a variety of forms: blanched or unblanched, raw, dry- or oil-roasted, with or without salt, chopped, sliced, ground (as in butters or flours), and pressed to make oils.

Nuts should be stored in a cool, dry place in airtight containers, away from light. Because of their high fat content, they are better stored in the refrigerator or freezer to deter rancidity.

A nut butter isn't just made of peanuts anymore. Almond butter, cashew butter and others are available in health-food stores and gourmet shops. And nut flours (partially defatted) are not only tasty but very helpful for people with wheat and gluten allergies.

Nut oils long associated with "gourmet" salads are much more common these days, especially since people who are watching their fat content can get a flavor boost with just a few drops or a light drizzle of bold-flavored hazelnut or walnut oil. I've even had fabulous cold-pressed pecan oil from Omega Nutrition (available at some health-food stores).

There are nut milks as well. Most common is coconut milk, which is associated with flavorful Thai cooking, while almond milk is made to produce the Italian dessert called panna cotta.

Worldwide, almonds have the largest share of the nut trade, and like most nuts, their taste is intensified when lightly toasted. We enjoy their flavor in the orgeat syrup used in lattes or mai tais. They are the hallmark ingredient in almond fried chicken and the ever-loved Almond Roca candy.

Walnuts are very popular in baking recipes. In Warm Walnut-Crusted Goat Cheese Salad With Wild Greens, discs of chevre goat cheese are coated with nuts, then baked and arranged on top of wild greens to make a nice light lunch or a dinner starter.

Cashews are usually the first to disappear from the party nut mix. Thought of as upscale, they are passed out in first-class flights instead of the usual peanuts. The recipe for Chili-Roasted Cashews yields the perfect popping snack to go with a cold beer or icy margarita during a fall football game.

Pistachios are a little more on the exotic side, maybe because they originated in Persia or because their shells are sometimes dyed red. Orange-Pistachio Cookies are chock-full of the toasted, naturally brilliant green nuts with semolina flour added for a crunchy texture. This nice, not-too-sweet, shortbread-like cookie also includes orange peel and orange-flower water. It will keep well over a week if stored in a tightly closed tin.

Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, have a slightly bitter brown skin that is best rubbed off after they have been lightly toasted. Grown in the United States, mostly in Oregon, they are one of my favorite nuts, especially in Halibut With Hazelnut Crust and Apple Vinaigrette, a perfect dinner party main dish.

The nut list goes on from tasty macadamia nuts, coconuts, candlenuts (used in Southeast Asian cookery) and ginkgo nuts, a native of China, to fresh chestnuts roasted on the street corners of Italy and served warm in paper cones; big, crunchy Brazil nuts; buttery-tasting pecans coveted by the South; and pine nuts, which some call a love food.

And last, but not least, is the ever-loved peanut, an American favorite. Not really a nut, it is actually a legume that buries its "peas" underground and is especially good in Chocolate-Peanut Fudge Cakes With Peanut Butter Cream.

Halibut With Hazelnut Crust and Apple Vinaigrette

Makes 4 servings

VINAIGRETTE:

1 red apple

3 tablespoons hazelnut oil or olive oil

2 teaspoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh lemon thyme

1/4 teaspoon salt

dash cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon water

HAZELNUT CRUST:

1 1/2 cups (8 ounces) hazelnuts, lightly toasted and skins rubbed off

dash dry mustard

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon dried whole thyme

1 1/4 pounds skinned halibut fillet

1/4 cup butter, melted

fresh lemon thyme sprigs for garnish, optional

To prepare vinaigrette, cut apple in half and core. Chop half apple. Reserve other half for garnish.

Heat hazelnut oil in small skillet over medium-low heat. Add chopped apple and cook 1 minute. Add shallots and sugar and continue cooking until apple is tender, about 1 minute. Add lemon juice and remove from heat. Let cool, then puree in blender until smooth.

Pour pureed mixture into medium bowl. Add mustard, then slowly whisk in oil. Add lemon thyme and season to taste with salt and cayenne. Stir in water to slightly thin out.

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