If you were to go looking through my hopelessly overcrowded freezer at home, you might be surprised by the number of packets of nuts in there. First, if you didn’t know that nuts could be frozen, they can, and second, I have so many of them because they’re so incredibly versatile. Think of any dish, and I could probably find a way of working nuts into it. Toasted macadamias tossed through a salad. Ground-up walnuts to thicken a Persian chicken stew. Chopped hazelnuts stirred through pasta with fried courgettes, or whole almonds coarsely ground in a fragrant orange blossom cake.
Nuts provide protein, natural fat, flavour and texture – they’re nature’s powerhouses that, unlike many superfoods, taste fantastic. I don’t think I’d be sprinkling goji berries liberally all over my supper. Alright, they’re not the cheapest adornment to your cookery, but they make such a difference, I really think it’s worth forking out for them. A Vietnamese salad loses a large part of its charm without its scattering of toasted peanuts, and I just don’t see the point of fruit cake if it’s not blanketed in sweet, sticky marzipan.
Of course, you’ve got to treat them properly. As a general rule nuts always taste better when toasted – it brings out the natural oils and gives them a rounded, less raw flavour. There are several ways to achieve this – you could place them in a dry pan and roll them around to stop them catching. This is the easiest option, but there’s a pretty large chance they’ll burn on one side. You could put them in a roasting tin in a medium oven for 10 minutes, which will toast them more evenly all over. If you’re going down this route, set a timer as I guarantee you’ll forget about them and they’ll end up black. Or, if you’re using them as a garnish and not an ingredient, you could heat a little oil in a frying pan and toast them in that – the oil distributes the heat so you get an even toasting, and also adds flavour.
If a recipe calls for them to be ground in a food processor, take care not to get carried away – whiz them too finely and you’ll push all the oil out which will leave you with a sticky lump instead of beautiful, fine crumbs. And always let them cool after toasting before grinding, to avoid the same thing happening.
Recipes using ground almonds, will be more delicious if you grind your own, rather than buying pre-ground. Doing it yourself means you can toast them first, and control how far you take them – leaving them mainly ground but still with a bit of texture will give you a cake with more bite and texture, and adding a couple of drops of almond extract will really enhance the flavour. As a general rule, you can substitute between half to 2/3 of a cake’s flour content for ground almonds, but add half a tsp of baking powder to the mix to counterbalance the heaviness.
If you’re keeping open packets of nuts for longer than a few days, be aware they’ll go stale pretty quickly, and as anyone who’s delved into the bowls on the tables of an All Bar One will testify, stale nuts taste VILE. This is where the freezer comes in handy. Frozen nuts can be toasted straight from the freezer, but you probably won’t want to eat them untoasted once they’ve been defrosted.
And what’s my favourite nut? I really couldn’t pick. Almonds seem made for baking, whereas peanuts achieve their life’s purpose in peanut butter. A box of chocolates would be meaningless without hazelnut praline, and I can’t even imagine ice cream without pistachio. All of them work in salads, on yogurt, in muesli, and roasting a mix of them with honey, sea salt and thyme will give you one of the most moreish snacks on the planet. Just ask my father.
So my Ode to the Noble Nut is complete, and I’ll sign off by saying that if you don’t cook with them very often, this weekend please give it a go – there’s a very good chance you’ll become addicted. And since it’s Friday, and my mind is devoid of nut puns, I’m now going to invite your entries, with a mystery prize for the best one.