Enjoy almonds, walnuts without guilt

Sometimes, you feel like a nut -- and that's OK, researchers say

Sunday Gourmet

January 04, 2004|By William Rice | William Rice,Chicago Tribune

So many of us, I am sure, have felt cloaked in guilt as we lift hand to mouth, deposit a handful of nuts and chew away to our heart's discontent.

Wait -- there's something wrong with that sentence.

Into the 1990s the entire nut family -- from almonds to walnuts -- was considered a threat to a healthy heart. Of late, medical researchers have been proposing once again that a food needn't be bad for us just because it tastes good. It is true that nuts are relatively high in fat, they say, but most of the fats are mono- or polyunsaturated. These fats are free of "bad" LDL cholesterol.

Change "discontent" to "content."

Furthermore, as nut nuts and followers of the Atkins' Diet eagerly point out, eating that handful of nuts daily (but no more) actually may be a plus for those seeking to lose weight or hold it steady. Nuts, the scientists theorize, satisfy the appetite while delivering only a small amount of calories. By the way, a handful is considered 1 1/2 ounces or about 1 / 3 cup.

For those who have been nut deprived, let me offer brief profiles of four favorites and a pair of recipes. For more details, consult Linda and Fred Griffith's informative Nuts: Recipes from Around the World That Feature Nature's Perfect Ingredient (St. Martin's Press, 2003, $29.95).

The seductive almond is the world's most planted nut tree and, for that matter, the number one nut in mentions in the Old Testament. It's also a cousin to the peach.

The kernels may be bitter or sweet. The sweet we eat. The bitter are crushed for their oil, which turns up in cosmetics, flavorings and cyanide. Sweet almonds frequently are roasted or toasted. They may be crushed as well and used in cakes, cookies and some savory preparations.

The sturdy chestnut, once this nation's most important tree, provided half the sawn logs used for construction in the 19th century.

A blight introduced by the importation of Asian chestnut trees at the end of the century killed almost the entire native American planting. An indication of the devastation is that yearly U.S. consumption fell to less than two chestnuts per capita.

Sweet chestnut confections are shipped here from France and Italy at holiday time and vendors will roast them at street corners. The mealy nuts have a texture similar to rice and corn and can be ground to make flour.

M.F.K. Fisher, the erudite food writer, once declared that it was impossible to eat a single macadamia nut, or something to that effect. Anyone who has watched these sexy nuts disappear from bowl or tin as if by magic will understand. The macadamia once was not so appealing, however. European settlers in Australia ignored them; there was no commercial orchard there until 1888. Scientific tinkering there and in Hawaii changed that. They developed a nut subtly flavored with floral honey and a semi-soft texture somewhat akin to aged cheese. In addition to its starring role at the cocktail table, it is well suited to play a part in sweet desserts, savory salads and seafood. Macadamia nut oil is tasty.

The walnut is simply charming. It's the favorite nut of bakers, who use it in brownies, muffins, quick breads, fruitcakes and tarts.

The texture of this California product is crisp, the taste bittersweet. It matches very well with chocolate and pumpkin, yet no small factor in its appeal is the ease with which the shell cracks.

There is considerable folklore attached to the walnut. For example, because of its wrinkled, oval appearance, it is considered "brain food" and, if bitten by a mad dog, one is to chew walnuts.

The ancient Greeks paid a suitable compliment: "Acorns for man, walnuts for the gods."

Here are recipes for two pleasing desserts.

Walnut Tart

Makes 6 servings

1 single tart dough, prepared and chilled

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (4 ounces) toasted walnuts, ground

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

2 / 3 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat an oven to 375 degrees. Roll out chilled tart dough and fit into a 7 1/2 -inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Line dough with foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the shell for 10 minutes. Remove foil and weights. Return shell to oven to bake 5 minutes longer or until crust is set but not brown. Cool on a wire rack. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Stir in ground toasted walnuts. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar together with an electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add vanilla. Stir the flour-nut mixture into the creamed mixture until thoroughly blended. Spread into pre-baked shell. Bake tart on a baking sheet in the 350-degree oven until filling is browned and set, about 35 minutes. Cool on rack to warm or room temperature before serving. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Almond and Polenta Cake

Makes 6 servings

2 sticks (8 ounces) butter

1 cup superfine sugar

2 cups ground almonds

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

Grated zest of 2 oranges

Juice of 1 orange

1 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal

1 teaspoon baking powder

Large pinch salt

Creme fraiche or whipped cream to taste

Almond liqueur such as Amaretto to taste

Heat an oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch spring-form cake tin. Beat the butter until it becomes pale and soft, then pour in the sugar and beat until light and creamy. Stir in the almonds and the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly before you add the next one. Fold in the orange zest, orange juice, polenta, baking powder and salt. Spoon into the prepared cake tin and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a deep golden brown and still a little wobbly in the center. Serve with creme fraiche and almond liqueur drizzled on top.

--Adapted from a recipe by Jamie Oliver

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