THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Are you nuts?

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALFor the record, I only act that way,  but what I’m referring to here is the cornerstone of mankind’s earliest diet. Along with the occasional captured rodent and harvested fruits, nuts made up a significant part of the diet, as they are packed with calories and protein and foraging for them didn’t require an elaborate hunting scheme; just pick, roast and crack. From those early beginnings all the way up to modern man’s favorite spread, peanut butter, nuts are here to stay.

But is it a Nut?
Arguably, modern man’s favorite nut isn’t really a nut at all. The peanut actually belongs to the legume family, as like most of the other legumes, they harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria that benefits both the peanut plant and the bacteria. In fact, they don’t even grow on trees, but are subterranean “nuts.” But unlike other legumes, what we consume are root based and not bush based.

Early in life, I consumed my fair share of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or more likely, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, first with the processed variety of peanut butter that was stable at room temperature — and it had to be Skippy’s — then later the true variety of peanut butter that had to be refrigerated and mixed before spreading. Of course, once I hit college and took several food safety classes, my peanut butter consumption dropped to a minimum, not because I lost my taste for the gooey stuff, but because peanuts that aren’t stored properly can harbor mold of the Aspergillus species, which then produce aflatoxins, which in large doses can cause immediate liver failure. And in chronic low doses they can cause liver cancer. Since then, the gooey nut spread I’ve reached for is more likely to be almond butter.

What’s a Drupe?
No, it’s not that dopey kid that sat at the back of the class that didn’t seem to be mentally present throughout the course of the day. And it’s not those ancient people who supposedly made Stonehenge. A drupe or stone fruit has a fleshy outer mesocarp that surrounds a hardened endocarp (stone or pit) that surrounds a seed.

In the case of apricots, plums and peaches, we consume the fleshy mesocarp; in the case of coffee, we roast the endocarp and brew it; and in the case of that other “nut,” the almond, we consume the seed. And in the case of the Gochiso Gourmet, I consume it ground to almond butter, ground and squeezed to almond milk or roasted and seasoned then added to my morning oatmeal for a little fat and protein with breakfast.
I now enjoy almond butter more than peanut butter, not just because of the absence of aflatoxins, but almonds are actually a lot healthier option since they have very little saturated fat. You notice how natural peanut butter noticeably hardens in the refrigerator? That’s due to the higher percentage of saturated fat in peanuts, whereas almond butter remains runny even after refrigeration because of its high polyunsaturated fat content. And almond butter does have a pleasurably natural sweetness not found in peanut butter.

Plus, almonds don’t just constitute my breakfast faire; I also always keep a can or two of smoked almonds for my Pea Salad with Smoked Almonds (http://the-gochiso-gourmet.blogspot.com/2008/03/pease-porridge-hot-pease-porridge-not.html) and a can of Marcona almonds for my Sauce Romesco. I also keep a package of toasted sliced almonds for my version of Cucina Restaurant and Wine Bar’s Zucchini Carpaccio.

Another favorite drupe is the walnut — again, it’s the seed of a drupe that like the almond contains a considerable amount of polyunsaturated fats but unlike the almond also has a fair amount of inherent bitterness. It has a bitterness that helps balance rich, creamy cheeses or balances the sweet and sour qualities of a good vinaigrette on a salad, especially when the salad also contains the flesh of drupes like grilled peaches or nectarines. And while I prefer my chocolate chip cookies without walnuts, I enjoy walnuts added to dessert crusts and toppings for the contrasting crunch they provide and the slight bitterness to balance the overt sweet and rich qualities of dessert.

Are There ‘Real’ Nuts in the Food World?
Other than certain columnists for the Nichi Bei Weekly, there are “real” nuts in the world, such as hazelnuts, chestnuts and acorns. Botanically speaking, true nuts are fruits with a hard shell and an internal seed where the shell doesn’t release the seed – it must be liberated by someone or something. Like the black footed Iberico bellota pig that gorges itself on acorns or the folks at Nutella who release those hazelnuts to create that delectable cocoa based spread that’s great on bread, crackers or simply eaten straight from a spoon!

I personally have never sampled an acorn, but do occasionally indulge on Iberico bellota ham, which in my humble opinion, is one step above even the best Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto San Danielle, since the fat literally melts in your mouth. And I only say “occasional” because of the cost — if those Power Ball numbers ever line up, “occasional” will become “regular.”

With chestnuts, other than simply adding to a stuffing or cooked with kuromame for the Oshogatsu, I still need to create that Italian dessert, Monte Bianco, which is simply a chestnut and chocolate puree topped with whipped crème to imitate the appearance of Mont Blanc. Especially since chestnuts are now readily available roasted and peeled. Twenty-something years ago while I was in graduate school, we still roasted and peeled chestnuts and every year while peeling, the chestnut skin would invariably find its way under my fingernail. Ouch! Bottled roasted and peeled variety make life so much simpler … and painless.

Great for the Holidays
Since these “nuts’ are flavored with the spices of Thanksgiving and Christmas, they make great starters when drinks are served, mini presents for work companions or even “reminders” for party guests who just don’t know when to leave: “Here, take this home with you.” Just pack them in one cup portions in festive wrapping. If you don’t have any worthy workplace companions or if your party guests all know when to leave, just unwrap them and enjoy yourselves.

Sweet and Savory Spiced Nuts. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Sweet and Savory Spiced Nuts. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Sweet and Savory Spiced Nuts
3 tbsp sugar
1  ½ tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
¾ tsp salt
1 large egg white
2  ½ cups walnut halves
2  ½ cups pecan halves

Preheat oven to 350 F with rack in middle. Lightly coat a sheet pan with non-stick spray.

Whisk together sugar, spices and salt in a small bowl. Whisk egg white in a medium bowl until frothy, then stir in nuts. Add spice mixture and toss to coat.

Spread nut mixture in one layer in sheet pan. Bake, stirring once or twice, until dry and well toasted, about 20 minutes. Loosen nuts from pan, then cool completely.

Nuts keep in an airtight container at room temperature for one week.

This is a great “munchable” during the holidays to keep your party guests from wandering into the kitchen when you’re completing your meal preparation. It’s also great served on a cheese board, especially with my Parmesan Gelato with Aged Honey and Red Wine Poached Pears … but that’s another column.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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