November 9, 2021 - Winter food shoot with Ellie Shortt.  mixed raw nuts, both shelled and unshelled. Don Denton photo

Nutcracker

Unshelling a long-loved ingredient

  • Jan. 19, 2022 8:30 a.m.

– Story and recipes by Ellie Shortt Photographs by Don Denton

My sincere apologies to all the readers with nut allergies, but I’m taking a deeper dive into one of my favourite ingredients. Not only are nuts nutritional powerhouses, they’re eternally versatile, providing unparalleled texture, flavour and nuance to any number of dishes.

Salads, stuffing, meatloaves, cookies, crumbles, cakes and muffins are all enhanced by a nutty crunch. Nuts can be made into non-dairy “milk” and “cheese,” and blend beautifully into buttery spreads. You can finely grind them for a moist and flavourful flour option, or elevate an otherwise tiresome cut of meat or slab of fish with an elegant nut-based crust. Even just cosying up with a blanket on a dark and stormy evening as you crack open shelled nuts offers the most satisfying wintertime activity.

Nuts have been a staple in the human diet for centuries. A recent archeological dig in Israel found evidence that nuts were a major part of the human diet as far back as 780,000 years ago. Seven varieties of nuts, including almond, water chestnut, acorn and pistachio, as well as stone tools to crack open the nuts, were found buried deep in a bog.

Fascinatingly, the varieties of pistachios and water chestnuts discovered are similar to those grown in the Middle East and Northern Europe today. Even more interesting is that the practices of making nut flours and butters seem to have been popular in these ancient times throughout the world.

The Greeks and Romans were fond of the walnut, considered food for the gods. Walnuts were also used for oil and sometimes powdered into a thickening ingredient, used like cornstarch is today.

The pecan, which is native to North America, was a staple of Indigenous diets. In fact, remains of pecans along with human artifacts dating back to 6100 BCE were found in archeological excavations in Texas.

Many of us associate the macadamia nut with Hawaii, but it actually originated in the rain forests of Australia, and was brought to Hawaii in the late 19th century. Similarly, the cashew nut is native to Brazil but has been widely cultivated in India and Africa since the 16th century. The Brazil nut is in fact native to South America. Brazil nuts are actually large seeds with 15 to 30 pieces arranged in a pod much like the sections of an orange. The first written reference of the Brazil nut dates to 1569 when a Spanish colonial officer collected thousands to feed his troops.

Written documentation of the hazelnut goes back much farther than that. A manuscript found in China from the year 2838 BCE places the hazelnut among the five sacred nourishments God bestowed on humans. Perhaps the oldest nut variety is almonds, mentioned in the Torah as one of the earliest cultivated foods.

One thing I’m always aware of, though, when thinking about, eating and cooking with nuts, is how easily accessible they now are, yet many of us are disconnected with how they arrive on our plate. If we had to cultivate, collect and shell every single nut ourselves (let alone grind it into flour or blend it into butter), it’s likely I wouldn’t be writing an entire piece on cooking with nuts.

Each nut packs such a punch that from a nutritional perspective, we don’t need to be gobbling them down by the bucketful to reap the benefits. And when it comes to making special dishes like some of the ones shown here, keep in mind that they ought to be just that—special. Make them, enjoy them, share them with friends and family, but simultaneously think about where in the world these ingredients were grown. Reflect on the fact that a tough shell encapsulated their beautiful flavours, brilliant textures and bountiful nutritional benefits, and then had to be cracked open without ruining the jewel within. Marvel over how many nuts it took to make that cup of flour or litre of milk. And as you do, smile at the fact that humans have been honouring and enjoying nuts in these many forms and uses for hundreds of thousands of years.

No wonder they’re one of my favourite ingredients; it seems it’s in my DNA.

Winter Salad with Pomegranates and Maple Candied Walnuts

This salad can be served as a seasonal side, but is also special enough to be enjoyed as a feature dish. If you have a time crunch (no pun intended), you can of course skip candying the walnuts, and simply toss them on raw—I promise it’s (almost) just as good!

Prep time: 15 minutes

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp pure maple syrup

Cinnamon, clove and ginger (just a pinch of each)

Sea salt (also just a pinch)

1 cup raw walnuts

2-3 medium oranges, sliced

I used a combination of blood and navel)

½ cup pomegranate seeds

1 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced

½ cup crumbled goat feta

3 loose cups baby arugula

3 loose cups baby kale

For the balsamic fig dressing…

1⁄3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp fresh squeezed orange juice

I prefer to use the blood orange for this)

1 ½ tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 tsp fig preserve

1 tbsp shallot, finely minced

1 loose tbsp fresh thyme leaves

Sea salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Heat a small pan on low heat and add in 1 tbsp of olive oil, followed by the maple syrup, spices, salt and walnuts. Sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Remove from heat and let the walnuts sit for another few minutes while they cool and harden, and then set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the dressing ingredients (this can also be done in a small blender) and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, toss the kale, arugula and fennel in the dressing (add the dressing bit by bit until it’s to your liking) and transfer to a large serving bowl.

Artfully arrange the orange slices, top with the pomegranate seeds, followed by the feta and finally the walnuts.

Sweet & Savoury Spiced Nuts

This is my favourite holiday gift go-to. I make up big batches, divvy it out into jars and adorn the jars with festive trimmings. It’s always a hit, and friends and family say how much they love having it on hand to offer guests, dress up their charcuterie boards, crumble onto salads or just munch on throughout the cold wintry months.

Prep time: 2 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Makes 2 ½ cups

Ingredients

1 large egg white

¼ cup cane sugar

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp chili powder

¼ tsp ground cayenne pepper

¼ tsp ground allspice

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 ½ cups assorted nuts (shown here with macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios and almonds)

Unsalted butter or olive oil for greasing

Directions

Preheat oven to 300 F and lightly grease a baking sheet. Beat the egg white until soft and foamy.

Combine all remaining ingredients, except for the nuts, and whisk together with the egg white. Stir the mixture with the nuts until well coated, and spread it in a single layer onto the baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes and remove from the oven. Toss, stir and separate the nuts.

Bake again until lightly browned, about 10 more minutes. Remove from oven, toss and stir again, and place the baking sheet on wire rack to cool (they will crisp as they cool).

Pistachio Crusted Lamb Chops

Crusting your meat, poultry or fish is a fantastic way to take it up a notch for a little dinner party with friends. While this dish seems fancy, don’t be intimidated. It’s actually quite easy and even saves you the step of making a mint sauce or something similar to serve with the lamb, as the crust provides all the additional flavour and flair you’ll need!

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 tbsp olive oil (plus extra for greasing)

1 tsp sea salt

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp grainy mustard

¼ cup parsley leaves

¼ cup mint leaves

1 clove of garlic

½ cup raw pistachios

2 large egg whites

8 lamb chops

Directions

Preheat your oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, place a wired rack on top of it and lightly brush it with olive oil. Combine the olive oil, salt, pepper, mustard, parsley, mint and garlic in a food processor and pulse until everything is thoroughly combined. Add in the pistachios and pulse until they’re finely chopped. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat the egg whites. Pat each lamb chop dry, dip one in the egg mixture, shake off the excess and then coat it with the pistachio mixture before transferring it to the wired rack. Repeat with all the remaining lamb chops. Roast for about 15 minutes until the pistachio crust is just starting to brown and the meat is medium or medium-rare (remember that it will keep cooking slightly as it sets).

Cashew Nut Nog

Thick, fluffy, creamy and rich—even if you enjoy the traditional nog ingredients of eggs and cream, you still might find this option preferable simply for the fact that it’s so easy and quick to make. Add in a shot or two of rum for some festive cheer or steam it into a luxurious latte.

Ingredients

1 cup raw cashews

1 400-ml can full fat coconut milk

2 tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground nutmeg

¼ tsp ground ginger

1⁄8 tsp ground star anise

Directions

Soak the cashews overnight in a sealable glass container with some warm water and a pinch of sea salt. In the morning, drain, thoroughly rinse and combine in a blender with the other ingredients. Blend on high until completely smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides as you go. This may take a few minutes, so be patient. Top with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg and enjoy!

* Can be stored in the fridge for up to a week

Chocolate Hazelnut Pear Cake

This may be one of my favourite cakes. It’s light yet moist, decadent but not overly rich, and it can feel homey and rustic or special and sophisticated, depending on how you present and serve it. I know the separation of whites and yolks can feel a bit fussy, but I promise it’s worth it. And as with most of my recipes, it can also be adapted; for example, there’s such a small amount of traditional flour, you can easily sub it with your go-to gluten-free blend.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30-40 minutes

Makes about 6 servings

Ingredients

½ cup butter (plus extra for greasing)

½ cup dark chocolate chips

1 tbsp brandy

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup finely ground hazelnuts

or store-bought hazelnut flour)

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ tsp sea salt

3 large eggs, separated

1⁄3 cup maple syrup

2 ripe pears, thinly sliced

¼ cup roughly chopped hazelnuts

Icing sugar and whipped cream, or topping

Directions

In a small saucepan on low heat, melt the butter and add in the chocolate chips, stirring constantly until fully melted. Set aside, allowing to cool before stirring in the brandy and vanilla extract.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 F. Line a 9-inch spring- form pan with parchment paper, and grease the edges with butter. In a large bowl, combine the ground hazelnuts, flour, baking pow- der, baking soda and salt. Using an electric mixer or by hand, beat together the egg yolks and maple syrup until the mixture is light, smooth and somewhat thickened (1-2 minutes), then stir in the chocolate mix and set aside.

Using an electric mixer or by hand (with a clean bowl and whisk), beat the egg whites until peaks start to form, but it’s not overly stiff. Fold the chocolate mix into the dry mix until fully integrated. Then fold in the egg whites, until they too are integrated (keep in mind you don’t want to over-mix here).

Transfer the batter to your prepared pan, gently smoothing out the surface with a spatula, artfully arrange the pear slices and sprinkle with the chopped hazelnuts.

Place it in the oven (I personally like to put it on a baking sheet as well, as it’s easier to grasp), and bake for 30-40 minutes (a knife or toothpick inserted in the centre should come out clean).

Allow the cake to cool fully before removing it from the springform pan.

Dust with icing sugar and serve with whipped cream.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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