Nuts have been used as food by animals and humans since prehistory. What we often call nuts are not actually nuts at all botanically, because a true nut has an internal seed surrounded by a woody shell that does not open on its own (indehiscent). Thus, things like walnuts and acorns are nuts, whilst pistachios and peanuts are not. However, for our purposes we shall classify any large seed, usually with quite a lot of fat, as a nut.
Many of you know that I often gather wild nuts in the fall for holiday cooking, and I shall not repeat much of that, but rather refer you to a piece that I wrote about it some time ago here. I do have a bit of an update at the end of the piece.
As an aside, tomorrow would have been my mum's 91st birthday. She left this vale of tears way too early. Quite a bit of what I speak about tonight had to do with her cooking savvy, and I am honored to write this with respect to her. She was a wonderful person, but like all of us had her feet of clay, but that is not the purpose tonight. I point this out merely to remember her, and hope that you think kindly of her tomorrow. She was one of a kind.
Before we get too far into this piece, I should point out that nuts are amongst the most common causes of food allergies, and some of those are quite intense. I went to graduate school with a fellow who, on his exploratory trip to the chemistry department, was taken to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. After eating, he developed full blown anaphylactic shock and almost died. NEVER serve nuts or nut-containing dishes to anyone without full disclosure that there are nuts in it, and what kind. It turned out in my friend's case the restaurant had added peanut butter to the taco sauce.
With that said, for the vast majority of people nuts are a healthful and nutritious (although highly calorific). The high calorie content is due to fats in the nuts (except for chestnuts, which are mainly starch). If these fats were saturated, nuts would not be nearly as healthy as they are, but the the bulk of the fats in most nuts is monounsaturated, and in many most of the rest is polyunsaturated, and these are good fats. A notable exception is coconuts, the fat of which is mainly saturated.
Remember the Pique the Geek piece a couple of weeks ago when we discussed drying oils? Well, most nuts contain the same kinds of fats that make drying oils reactive, so nuts are quite delicate insofar as storage and use goes. As a matter of fact, it is best to store nuts in a cool, dry place in the shell (if these are real nuts with solid, woody shells). There are a number of reasons for this.
First of all, opening the shell breaches an oxygen barrier. Without oxygen, the oils do not go rancid. Second, when nuts are opened the cuticle, another oxygen barrier, gets disrupted as well. Third, for many nuts it is difficult to remove the nutmeats intact (there are exceptions), and the increase in surface area promotes oxidation. Finally, the nutpick is your enemy, severely damaging the nut meats and tremendously increasing the surface area. A nutpick should be used as gently as possible, and more to pry larger pieces of nut meats from the shell, not to break them up any more than possible. Nuts with more monounsaturated fats than polyunsaturated ones are less apt to go rancid, but still will after time, as explained in the link.
With this said, let us take a brief survey of a few of the most commonly used nuts. I shall include near the end some of the less commonly used ones that I happen to relish. Unless qualified, this discussion is for US consumption.
Leading the pack are peanuts, not really nuts at all but rather seeds of a legume, so they are really more like beans than nuts. They just are unusually fatty for a legume seed. Peanuts are eaten raw, roasted, roasted and ground into butter, boilt, and are ingredients in many dishes worldwide. Native to Central America, Arachis hypogaea sets its fruits in a very unusual way. During the flowering stage, the blooms look a lot like those of beans, but after pollination the stems fall to the ground and actually burrow within it. As a matter of fact, "hypogaea" means under the earth. There the seedpods develop and when mature are dug up, now with mechanical devices.
During the Civil War, peanuts were quite precious because the Union troops were largely unfamiliar with them and did not know that they were deep underground. When fields were torched or plundered, peanuts were spared. Many a poor southern family was able to survive because of them. They are quite nutritious, and here are some pertinent data about them. All values are based on an one ounce (28 g) serving. The figures sometimes add to more than 28 grams because of rounding. All figures are taken from USDA sources.
Carbohydrates: 6 g ( 0 g sugars)
Fat: 13.7 g (2 g saturated, 6.9 g monounsaturated, 4.6 g polyunsaturated)
Protein: 7 g
Fiber: 2.6 g
Thus, peanuts are an excellent source of high quality protein, good fats, and a significant amount of fiber. They are also rich in antioxidants, especially when the cuticle is left on and this antioxidant level increases when roasted. Therefore, do not worry about that PBJ sandwich every now and then. An even more healthful sandwich, that I find especially delicious, is to use very ripe bananas instead of the jelly and to use 100% whole wheat bread. With a bowl of hot soup and a glass of cold skim milk, this simple combination provides an extremely healthful and filling lunch.
Peanut oil, expressed from the raw nuts (you can get roasted peanut oil, but it is used for flavoring rather than as a cooking oil), is used extensively for cooking, and especially for frying since it has a high smoke point, the temperature when an oil begins to smoke excessively due to decomposition. It is more expensive than soya oil, but if carefully handled can be filtered and reused a number of times before it has to be discarded. A coffee filter supported by a metal kitchen sieve is excellent for filtering used oil.
I like peanuts fine, but they are not my favorite nut. However, they are cheap for a nut and do have lots of uses. My special friend and I made some peanut butter balls not long ago and they were good. I also like peanut brittle, especially when it is made from the red cuticle, small Spanish variety. My grandmum was the master of peanut brittle! Since peanuts have little to no free sugar, they are less sweet than many other nuts, but sometimes not being sweet is a good thing.
When I buy peanuts, I always get the raw ones in the shell and shell out the ones that I want to use just beforehand. Since they are so easy to shell, it does not take long to extract how ever many that you need just before cooking your dish. I prefer the small, Spanish kind over the larger ones because I think that they have more flavor. When I was little we had a family friend, Charlie Fox, who raised peanuts. We never had to buy them, because Charlie supplied us with all that we needed. Later, my father grew them in his garden. It is amazing how many peanuts you can get from a relatively small planting.
Most peanuts in the US come from the southern and southwest region, but the United States is FAR from the largest producer. In the 2008-2009 growing season the US produced 2.34 million tonnes of peanuts. China, during that same time, produced 14.3 million tonnes!
Almonds are very popular in the US, and are used roasted, blanched (with the cuticle softened by immersion in hot water and then peeled away from the nut), as butter, and to make almond milk. In addition, they have lots of culinary uses as a flavoring ingredient.
Almonds grow on trees, and an almond grove looks a whole lot like a fruit orchard. The reason for the latter statement will be clear after the next paragraph.
The fruit of Prunus dulcis, almonds are very ancient, originating in western and southern Asia. Those of you hip to botany will immediately be able to tell from the genus name that almonds are close relatives of apricots, cherries, peaches, and plums, all of which are also of the same genus. As a matter of fact, if you take a peach and open the pit, the seed looks just like an almond. But do not eat them for reasons to be seen straightaway.
There are two races of almonds, bitter almonds and sweet almonds. Sweet almonds are the kind that we use as nuts, and are wholesome and healthful. Bitter almonds are actually quite toxic (as are many seeds of the Prunus genus) because of high levels of a glycoside (a combination of an alkaloid and a sugar) called amygdalin that is hydrolyzed into benzaldehyde (the characteristic almond flavor), the sugar glucose, and hydrogen cyanide! The pits of the Prunus fruits are like bitter almonds in that they contain sometimes dangerous levels of that glycoside, so do not eat them. Natural almond extract is made from bitter almonds using a process that frees it from the hydrogen cyanide, leaving mostly benzaldehyde. In a freak of nature, both hydrogen cyanide and benzaldehyde smell pretty much the same, and the smell of almonds is often associated with hydrogen cyanide poisoning. Imitation almond extract is mostly alcohol, water, and synthetic benzaldehyde.
Sweet almonds are also an excellent food. Here is a typical analysis, again for one ounce of raw almonds with the skins:
Carbohydrates: 6.2 g (1.1 g sugars)
Fat: 14.1 g (1.1 g saturated, 8.8 g monounsaturated, 3.4 g polyunsaturated)
Protein: 7 g
Fiber: 3.5 g
Like other nuts, almonds have lots of antioxidants, and the thick cuticle is home to lots of them. However, it darkens when cooked, so many recipes call for blanched almonds. I keep the skins and toast them briefly and then add just a little salt and eat them as a snack when I blanch almonds. Careful, they can burn very quickly!
I like almonds very much, and try to eat some every week. They have a little more sugar than peanuts, and you can tell. I like the dry roasted ones that are lightly salted. For snacking, I just buy the shelled, dry roasted and salted kind. For cooking I buy raw ones in the shell. Like peanuts, they are easy to shell and there is no need to shell a bunch of them beforehand for cooking.
Most almonds in the US come from California, and the US is the world's leading producer of them. In 2010 the US produced 1.41 million tonnes, over half of the world production. Now you can see why almonds are more expensive than peanuts.
Walnuts, the English (actually, Persian is a better term) kind are for some reason highly esteemed by many. I consider the nut from Juglans regia to be particularly unpalatable, but I am quite spoilt, having grown up in a region where black walnuts are common. More about them later. I just do not like them, and never have. They probably originated in central Asia.
I am told that they are good for cooking and eating, but my taste buds and olfactory bulb tells me otherwise. If you like them, good on you. Here are the nutritional data:
Carbohydrates: 3.9 g (0.75 g sugars)
Fat: 18.6 g (1.8 g saturated, 2.6 g monounsaturated, 13.5 g polyunsaturated)
Protein: 4.4 g
Fiber: 1.9 g
Look at the figure for polyunsaturated fat! It is tremendously high. Walnut fats are extremely susceptible to oxidation, and if you use them I strongly suggest that you buy them in the shell and shell them (they are not hard to shell) just before you ruin whatever dish to which you desire to add them. You can use the alternative method that I shall explain later if you feel that you must shell them out beforehand. Almonds or even peanuts are a better choice, at least for my palate.
China is the largest producer of walnuts, with 1.06 million tonnes produced in 2010. The US is second, but I could not find figures. Most US walnuts come from California. The best use that I know of for that species is to use the wood from the tree for decorative veneer on fine furniture or for gunstocks.
An interesting nut is the cashew. Native to what is now Brazil, Anacardium occidentale, the cashew grows on a tree, even though the nuts look a whole lot like peanuts. They are not often used in cooking, but roasted and salted are extremely popular.
I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that you have never seen a cashew in the shell, unless you are a denizen of the growing regions. This is because the shells of the seed (cashews are not true nuts) contain high concentrations of anacardic acid, very closely related chemically to urushiol, the potent allergen that (in many people) causes the severe, adverse reaction to poison ivy! All cashews imported into the US (the US does not produce any) are shelled.
I like cashews. I find them nicely sweet and delicious. In the US they are usually used just as salted nuts, but with a starch content higher than most nuts they are also useful as a thickening agent for sauces, often done in Indian cookery. Here are the data for shelled, raw ones:
Carbohydrates: 8.5 g (1.7 g sugars)
Fat: 12.5 g (2.2 g saturated, 6.8 g monounsaturated, 2.2 g polyunsaturated)
Protein: 5.2 g
Fiber: 0.94 g
Since most of the unsaturated fat in cashews is monounsaturated, they keep OK for a while if kept out of light and air.
I rarely buy cashews, but I do like them. Just dry roasted and salted is fine. They have lots more sugar than any of the nuts that we have discussed so far, and anyone who has eaten them can tell that. In 2010 Nigeria was the largest producer with 650,000 tonnes. Cashews are not horribly expensive, but much more so than peanuts.
A nut that I like very much is the pistachio. Pistacia vera, a native of western Asia, is in the same family as the cashew, and it shares some characteristics, one of which is the content of urushiol. Cultivars grown in the US are low in this material and so these nuts are of little concern. Besides, most of it is in the husk that falls away from the shell, so pistachios in the shell are not a problem unless one is hypersensitive.
Like the cashew, pistachios have quite a little starch. The ones on the market used to be dyed a bizarre shade of red (sometimes green), but most that are available now are not dyed at all. The transition from dyed to natural ones is a story in itself.
Not that long ago, pistachios were hand gathered. The mere act of touching them caused them to become stained with dark spots, so producers dyed them to hide the dark spots. All US pistachios are now harvested by machine, and for some reason machine harvested ones do not stain, so it is no longer necessary to dye them.
Here are the data for pistachios:
Carbohydrates: 8.2 g (2.2 g sugars)
Fat: 12.8 g (1.6 g saturated, 6.8 g monounsaturated, 3.8 g polyunsaturated)
Protein: 5.2 g
Fiber: 2.8 g
Now we come to my favorite nuts, especially for holiday goodie cooking. One of them is well known to most, and two are sort of obscure in that they are not often commercially available.
The pecan, Carya illinoinensis, is the one that is well known, a species of hickory and the only hickory commercially grown. Pecans grow wild over much of the southern US, and I knew of a tree when I lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Wild pecans have a wonderful flavor, but the nuts are small with thick shells. There are commercial varieties that have larger nuts and thinner shells, and those are the ones that you see in the store. The US produces around 200,000 tonnes annually, by far the greatest production in the world.
Pecans are used in a multitude of ways, from raw out of hand or in Waldorf salads, "whole" halves cooked into pies, pieces used in cookies and breads, and lots of other ways. They are relatively expensive, but because of the thin shells there is a lot of nut meat per nut. Where I grew up we had a papershell pecan tree in the front yard that my father planted when they bought the place. Thus, we had plenty of pecans and would give them away to friends and relatives after we got enough for our needs. That variety is very easy to crack, just squeezing two of them together in the hand supplying enough force to crack them. It is better to crack them with something channelock pliers because you can control the cracking and rarely break each half. You can always chop or break them into smaller pieces later, but it is sort of hard to put the small pieces together to make halves!
Pecans, like other nuts, are laden with "good" fats. Here are the numbers on pecans:
Carbohydrates: 4.0 g (1.1 g sugars)
Fat: 20.6 g (1.8 g saturated, 11.7 g monounsaturated, 6.2 g polyunsaturated)
Protein: 6.2 g
Fiber: 2.7 g
Some recent research indicates that pecans, eaten daily, can do as much to lower "bad" cholesterol levels as some prescription medications, and without the adverse health risks associated with the statin drugs. That seems to me to be a delicious way to have a healthy heart. At the conclusion of this piece I shall provide a link to some recipes for holiday goodies. It has already run in this space, but newer readers probably have not seen it.
Hickory trees other than pecans produce nuts, and some of them are outstandingly good. The problem with hickory is that the shells are really thick (for the most part) and the nut meats are tedious to separate from the shell. There are several species of hickory, but it really does not matter what kind you have nearby, for no hickory is poisonous. Some are so bitter that you can not eat them, but intake of those is self limiting to part of a single nut meat.
In our front yard when I was growing up there was a hickory (probably Carya glabra, the pignut hickory) on the other side of the walk from the pecan tree. It was a very dependable cropper and bore huge quantities of nuts. Because of the difficulty in picking them out, my parents did not do a lot of cooking with them, but the former Mrs. Translator and I used a lot of them. In those days I traveled a lot and would take ziplock bags of cracked nuts with me and pick them out at the motel whilst watching TeeVee. When I would call home she would ask what I was doing and I would reply, "Just sitting here picking my nuts.". Using what would otherwise be nonproductive time gave us plenty of hickory nuts for holiday baking.
Here in the Bluegrass I have located a shagbark hickory (Cayra ovata) in a yard near my house and the people who live there are always happy to let me pick up as many as I want. Hickory nuts, unlike black walnuts, are easy to clean in the field, so you get a lot of nuts in a box since you can remove the husk with your fingers. Shagbarks are nice because they have thin shells that I crack with a pair of channellok pliers, taking care not to smash the nut meats. I than use a dental probe that I modified to pick out the nut meats. If you crack them carefully, with a little practice you can often get quarters from them.
Here are the numbers for hickory nuts. The USDA database was not specific as to the exact species.
Carbohydrates: 5.2 g (sugars not specified)
Fat: 18.4 g (2.0 g saturated, 9.3 g monounsaturated, 6.3 g polyunsaturated)
Protein: 3.6 g
Fiber: 1.8 g
Finally, there is the king of all of the nuts, at least in my opinion. The black walnut (Juglans nigra) is an outstanding nut except for one drawback: they are hard to shell. They are rarely seen in stores, but if you look hard enough you can sometimes find them. I found them at Sam's Club one year, and the local Sav-A-Lot has them this year (for $8 for half a pound!).
We had a tree in the back yard that was a heavy cropper of average to largish nuts. We would gather and husk them (but my parents had not developed the technique that I describe in the link given above), then let them cure out until dry enough to shell. I shall go into a little detail about my current method, because it is bit more refined than the one in the link, although they are basically the same. I just have discovered some improvements.
I get my walnuts at the entrance to a subdivision a few miles away. There are six or eight trees there, so it does not take long to get quite a few. I hedge my bets and get nuts from under several trees in case a particular tree has bad ones.
Instead of using just a hose to rinse them off after the husk is removed, I used a pressure washer this year. This produces a much cleaner nut, and that means less debris, and this is a good thing. I also have discovered the optimum method of husking and cracking them. If you look at a black walnut in the husk, you will see that it is not quite spherical but slightly flattened. You will also notice that there is a stem end (a slight depression where the nut was connected to the tree) and a blossom end (often with a little "stick" about 1/16 inch long and about as thick as a hair from my mustache).
I found that the husk comes off better if you but the stem end over the hole in the board and hit the blossom end with the hammer. Many of the nuts that I got this year were on the small side, so a lot of them would fall through my wire baskets when I pressure washed them. All things equal, it pays to get the biggest ones that you can find. If I have to settle for small ones next year I shall fabricate a hardware cloth basket for washing and curing them.
The improvement that I developed in cracking them is to put the stem end on some sort of hard surface (I have a big shop vise that has an anvil that I use) and hit them sharply on the blossom end (the blossom end has a little, sharp point on it). Wear a heavy leather glove on you holding hand. The trick is to use just enough force to break the nuts into quarters (most of the time), not to mush them. I would crack a 14 ounce Prince Albert tobacco tub of them (around four or five dozen nuts) and then bring them in for further processing.
Watch as you crack them because often large pieces of nut meat will fall onto your cracking surface, so pick them up rather than smash them with the next nut. In the house I use the channeloks to finish cracking them without smashing the meats and the dental probe to extricate the meats from the shell.
This was a good year for nuts. The hickory nuts were almost all good, with only a few with bad kernals. (Look at the nuts when you pick them up for a small, round hole. Those are bad because a grub has gotten into the nut, so just leave them on the ground. Last year there was a frost at a bad time and there were no hickory nuts at all, but there were lots this year. As for the black walnuts, last year only about one in ten or 12 were good, the rest having either dried out or rotted nut meats. This year I often cracked a full tubful without any bad ones. As for the pecans, I had to buy them at the store, but I got the ones in the shell for reasons mentioned earlier.
Here are pictures of the hickory nuts and black walnuts as taken from the field:
These are the black walnuts. I collected three boxes (I used liquor boxes available free at the liquor store). The boxes are about 15"x10"x11", or just under a cubic foot each, so you can say that I essentially collected about three cubic feet of nuts in under 45 minutes. When walnuts crop well, there are LOTS of nuts under the trees and you can get a bunch in a little while. I wish that I had gotten more, but remember, they do not keep forever. From the three cubic feet of nuts in the husk I ended up with almost exactly four pints of clean nutmeats. At the store those would have cost about $16 per pint, so I got about $64 worth of them.
These are the hickory nuts. I got a little over half a box of them, so about half a cubic foot. I scored six and one-half pints of those! If you could buy them, and if they have the same cost of black walnuts, that would be about $104 worth. Since you can husk them in the field, and because the shells are so thin, there is a lot of nut in a small space, unlike the walnuts. On a volume level, I picked up about six times as many black walnuts as I did hickory nuts but got only about 60% as many cleaned nut meats.
I did not take a picture of the pecans that I bought, but there were Red Diamond ones in the shell. Each pound bag cost $5, and I got four pints of clean halves.
Here is a picture of the grant haul of nuts. On the left are the pecans that I bought, in the center the black walnuts, and on the right the hickory nuts. I am very much anticipating cooking the goodies, and this year someone wants to help me!
But this comes at a cost. Not so much time, since I did most of the work whilst I watched TeeVee, something that is quite unproductive, but in the physical sense. Here is a picture that my friend took of my hands just after I had processed all of the nuts.
You can see the peculiar brownish stain on my left hand. That is caused by the juglone in the black walnut husks. Try as I may, I have never been able to handle large quantities of black walnuts without staining my hands. Vinyl gloves are useless, and latex ones are not durable enough to last long. This time I used polyethylene grocery bags, and they did not do much good either. Of course, skin gets replaced relatively rapidly, so the stains are now gone from the skin. However, my fingernails on that hand are now bicolored, the new growth at the base of the nails being normal looking, but the part exposed to the juglone still an interesting shade of orange. Here is a picture of them.
If you look closely at my left, middle finger you will see another small blister or abrasion. That was from cracking black walnuts without the protection of a heavy leather glove. I had forgotten to wear one the first tubful of walnuts that I cracked. I shall not make that mistake again!
Now look at my right hand. On my ring finger you can see a large blood blister. That was caused by foolishness on my part. My right hand was cramping from using the channeloks to finish cracking hickory nuts and I tried using my left hand to operate the pliers. I caught my skin with the pliers' jaws because of the clumsy effort to use my less dominant hand to squeeze the handles. The blood blister on the palm was caused by the handles of the pliers. Every now and then I would catch that skin as a nut would give way faster than I could react and quit squeezing.
These little injuries are trivial, though, compared to the joy that I will give to loved ones who have come to expect holiday goodies. I am the only one who remembers exactly how to make some of them, in particular the Lizzies (my mum's specialty) and the family like to be reminded of her at this time of year. As a matter of fact, after I put this piece in the queue in a little while (it is about 8:00 PM Eastern on Friday night as I write this) I shall put the raisins for it in glass and add the bourbon to flavor them so that they will be ready tomorrow for my friend and me to make Lizzies.
So what am I going to make, other than Lizzies? By the way, the recipe for them and a few other goodies is here. Here are some of the things that I have planned.
Myers Rum Truffles
Black walnut/cream cheese pound cake (created by the former Mrs. Translator and perfected by me)
Several hickory nut breads with different adjuncts, like banana, carrot, or zucchini
A pecan pie, but made with hickory nuts
Cushaw pie (like pumpkin, but using cushaws instead as the base)
No fudge this year. It is good, but fudge is pretty common. I want to make things for people that are not commonly available.
By the way, if you like to make fudge, black walnuts are vastly superior to pecans or the blasphemous Persian walnuts for it. The black walnut version is ambrosia, the pecan one quite good, and the Persian walnut one not fit for a dog, since dogs are poisoned by chocolate.
I am going to try to save at least half a pint of black walnuts until the weather gets nice and hot. In the part of the country whence I come a few small, local dairy plants make Black Walnut Ice Cream. There is nothing else quite like it, and fortunately the fines left over from the larger pieces that I plan to use for holiday baking work well in it. It is still commercially available in very limited areas, and by friend and Kossack justasabeverage tells me that it is still available in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I have an ice cream freezer, and my friend is excited to make ice cream from scratch. If it goes as well as the chicken and dumplings did Monday past, it will be another fun time cooking together.
Who knows what else! My friend has a couple of suggestions, and she and I surely will experiment a bit.
Please let me and the rest of the readership know what kind of nuts that you like, and how you use them. For the most part they are very healthful (you have to be careful with Brazil nuts because of their extremely high selenium content) if eaten in reasonable amounts. Nuts are nature's perfectly packaged fast food, needing nothing more than a couple of rocks with which to crack them and eat them raw, but becoming ambrosia when incorporated with other ingredients and cooked properly. I was sort of joking with the title of this piece, but actually there are fewer better wishes that I could give than to say nuts to you.
So, what am I going to do with all of these treats? The ones that are not perishable get shipped to the family in Arkansas, except for one box that goes to Eldest Son and his wonderful wife in another state. The former Mrs. Translator will see that the rest of the family there get their share. It is cheaper to ship a big box than it is to ship lots of small ones, and I would rather concentrate on using funds for high quality ingredients than shipping.
Of course I shall consume some of them, but eating the goodies is not nearly as fulfilling as giving them to others. Lots of them will end up with my new family, and they will be dispersed thence, and one box shall go to my dear neighbor next door and his family, the dear folks across the street and their family, and to my other dear neighbor a few doors to the north across the street.
Here is my philosophy about cooking, in a nutshell. To cook for only one's self is futile. I would rather eat a frozen dinner, frozen. To cook for loved ones is much, much better, and I am getting back into doing that. To cook with loved ones, for loved ones is where the joy is, and the food tastes better for everyone when a large proportion of love is incorporated into the final product. Do I make sense, or am I just a hopeless romantic?
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith