Market Musings Blog

Spiced Nuts for the Holidays

Fireplaces, holidays, snow (?) , . . . and nuts. People eat more nuts in winter than other times of year, and not just because they go so well with cozy, indoor socializing. What makes nuts so delicious is their wonderful fats, each distinctively flavored, each delicious in its own way.

To bring out the fullest flavor in fresh nuts, you’ll want to toast them. If you’re a purist, simply heating up a cast-iron skillet for about 5 minutes on medium heat, then tossing the nuts in it until they start to smell really good and develop brown patches, is sufficient. (Be sure to pour them out of the pan as soon as they reach this stage, or they’ll burn: cast-iron skillets do not cool off for a long time after you remove them from the heat.)

If your taste runs to more piquant nuts, here are a few simple treatments from around the world that you can make in minutes. I’ve also included a wonderful microwaved candied nut recipe. I suggest using a cast-iron or carbon-steel wok to avoid the messiness associated with slinging sugar around the stove. Have a greased baking sheet or a big sheet of aluminum foil ready to pour these candied nuts onto immediately.

Peppered Pecans

This recipe has a long and winding road; the version below comes from the late Barbara Tropp’s  China Moon Café in San Francisco.

Ingredients:

¼ c. white sugar
1 Tbs. kosher salt
2 Tbs. coarsely ground black pepper
1 c. pecans

  1. Combine sugar, salt, and pepper.
  2. Heat cast-iron skillet or wok on MEDIUM until hot (about 5 minutes). Add pecans; toss until oils come to surface (about 1 minute).
  3. Sprinkle nuts with half of sugar-salt-pepper mixture and shake pan until sugar melts (about 1 minute). Add rest of seasoning mixture; continue shaking pan until pecans are coated with melted mixture.
  4. Immediately turn nuts out onto baking sheet or plate. When they’ve cooled enough to be handled, separate them. Cool completely, then store in an airtight jar or can.

 

Candied Chestnuts (Juri Ama-ni, Japan)

Ingredients:

1 lb. chestnuts, peeled
1 2/3 c. white sugar
2 c. water

  1. Slice off very bottom of chestnuts so they’re flat. Soak for 30 minutes in cold water to remove bitterness, then drain and dry them.
  2. Add cold water to a pot deep enough to cover chestnuts; add nuts and bring to boil on HIGH. Reduce heat to LOW after water comes to a boil, and simmer until chestnuts become tender, about 20 minutes.
  3. Remove pot from heat; pour into sieve or colander, and run cold water over nuts to cool them. When they’ve drained and cooled, return them to pot.
  4. Put water and sugar in a wok (not nonstick!) or large saucepan on MEDIUM, stir to dissolve sugar, and bring to a boil slowly. Boil until syrup  becomes slightly thickened. If foam forms, skim it off.
  5.  Pour sugar syrup into pot over chestnuts, cover with a lid, and simmer on LOW for 10–15 minutes, until nuts are nicely coated. Set pot aside for 24 hours, unrefrigerated. (The high sugar content will prevent any foodborne microorganisms from getting a foothold.)
  6. If you can bear to wait, simmer the pot’s contents a second time on LOW for 10-15 minutes, and cool again before eating.

Choose Your Own Adventure Spiced Nuts

You can use any nuts you like for this quicky version of candied nuts. Be sure to dry-toast nuts (see above) before you toss with the sugar-olive oil syrup. (The olive oil keeps the nuts and their sugar coating slightly moist instead of crackly.)

Ingredients:

¼ c. granulated sugar
¼ c. water
1 Tbs. mild extra-virgin olive oil
1½–2 c. of dry-toasted nuts
Your favorite flavorings*

*The sky’s the limit! You could add ½ tsp. powdered chipotle; 1 tsp. vanilla extract; ½ tsp. powdered cardamom; ½ tsp. powdered wasabi; ½ tsp. hot Spanish paprika (pimentón) . . .

  1. Put sugar, water, and olive oil in heavy skillet, wok, or saucepan over MEDIUM heat; stir occasionally until mixture comes to a boil, then reduce syrup by about 1/3—the syrup should have become a warm, toasty medium brown.
  2. Add toasted nuts to mixture, stir in thoroughly, and immediately pour out onto greased baking sheet or aluminum foil. When nuts cool enough to touch, separate them. Cool thoroughly, then store in glass jar or airtight tin.

 

Barbara Kafka’s Microwaved Peanut Brittle

This is a bulletproof recipe, and so easy to make. Find the original in Kafka’s brilliant Microwave Gourmet (1987).

Ingredients:

1 c. white sugar
½ c. light corn syrup*
½ c. water
1½ c. raw peanuts
vegetable oil

* We sell corn syrup near the holidays. You can also use agave syrup. Plain corn syrup has been demonized; it’s a simple sugar with a lower glycemic index than white sugar.  High fructose corn syrup is a different story!

  1. Combine sugar, corn syrup, and water in 8-c. tempered-glass measuring cup. Cook, uncovered, at 100% for 3 minutes.
  2. Remove from oven and stir thoroughly. Add peanuts; stir again. Cover tightly with microwave plastic wrap or porcelain plate that completely covers top and cook at 100% for 15 minutes.
  3. Lightly coat silicon spatula and large baking sheet or marble slab with vegetable oil. Remove glass cup from microwave; pierce plastic with tip of knife to release steam, and remove plastic carefully or remove plate by facing it away from you.
  4. Pour nut mixture onto oiled surface. Using spatula, spread nuts to distribute them throughout syrup. Allow brittle to harden. When it’s cooled, break into chunks with rolling pin and store in airtight container.

Ode to the Pine Nut

You needn’t have lived in New Mexico, as I did, to appreciate the sweet earthiness of pine nuts. Consider the Genoan sauce pesto, the provençal sauce pistou, the grain salads of the Middle East that make use of them, the Persian and Tunisian treats, the Milanese panettone: pine nuts figure in dishes both savory and sweet wherever the nuts are grown.

Here in North America, piñons—the small, scruffy pine trees that bear pine nuts—are found throughout the American Southwest and northern Mexico, but they grow most spectacularly in the high desert places of New Mexico. They seem to have arrived there almost 200 million years ago from Asia, where they still grow in climates like New Mexico’s: high and dry. Part of the high cost associated with pine nuts is a result of their narrow and rigid demands for plentiful sunshine, dry climate, and thrifty soil. Like the truffle, the pine nut resists cultivation; it must still be gathered from the wild.

Getting here and finding simpatico growing conditions weren’t the only challenges for these once-tall, now almost bonzai-like, trees.  Pine nuts lack the wings (samaras) that propel most fertilized tree fruits toward the ground, so the piñon depends on another method to guarantee its survival. Happily, the piñon jay feasts almost exclusively on pine nuts in season, and like other members of the corvid family, it craftily buries much of its cache to prevent other would-be piñon eaters from stealing its stash. Once buried by jays, pine nuts can germinate and produce new trees.

Jays, as you know, have long, sharp beaks, and this should suggest the challenge that harvesting pine nuts presents to us non-beaked humans. For jays?—no problem. For us?—slow, painstaking, exclusively manual work, the other big factor in the high cost of pine nuts: they must be extricated, nut by nut, from beneath the scales of mature pine cones.

In slower times, New Mexico families made weekend or longer visits to stands of piñon trees to gather the nuts; harvesting became holiday as well as work. Today, gathering method hasn’t changed much: ripe cones, their scales fanned outward, are picked and struck against something hard to release the nuts, which are then shoved into burlap sacks.

Because of their very high fat content, pine nuts can’t just sit around at room temperature for long; their delicate fats, redolent with the scent and taste of pine, quickly become rancid. That’s why Mississippi Market keeps its pine nuts refrigerated.

Yes, they’re expensive, and for a reason: it takes about 1,500 human- or jay-harvested pine nuts to make up a single pound—that’s a lot of labor tied up in those small, luscious nuts. But they’re irreplaceable in certain recipes, and if you’ve ever toasted a small skilletful of them, you understand why they’re worth every penny.

Nutritionally, pine nuts are protein powerhouses—somewhere between 24–30 percent protein by weight—but that’s not really why we love them. Incorporated into a bread, a scone, a pesto or pistou, they imbue the food with a sweet and slightly resinous quality, a soft chewiness, that’s unique.

In the next few weeks, you may see reports in the news about foodborne illness associated with Turkish pine nuts. There’s also a peculiar condition known as pine nut mouth that affects some people who eat Chinese pine nuts: sufferers develop a transient condition that makes everything they eat taste metallic.

Your food co-op’s pine nuts are home grown, sweet, and safe to eat. We hope you’ll give these marvelous nuts a try. They are unrivalled in fancy holiday breads, where their sweetness and diminutive size contribute wonderfully to the taste and look of your loaves.

(And if you need more convincing, how about pine nut brittle . . .?)

Adoption Complete… Meet our Maple!

Our Maple tree in the Anderson Family sugarbush.

I’m in awe these days, watching nature come back to life. And, when I stop and pay attention, when I witness the changes that take place through the evolving seasons, I can’t help but feel a strong connection to the earth.

At the co-op we honor this connection in many ways, one of which is to buy from and support our local growers that we know are stewards of the environment, working to keep their land healthy and sustainable. Local growers like the Anderson family in Cumberland, Wis. who produce Anderson’s Maple Syrup, a family run business for over 80 years.

The Anderson’s participate in the Forest Cropland Program and Conservation Reserve Programs, both voluntary efforts to protect natural habitats and preserve them for future generations. They also created the Adopt-A-Maple tree program. For every adoption, a donation goes to plant a tree in America’s forests which will help restore areas damaged by wildfire, where critical wildlife habitat has been lost, and to clean our air and water.

Our adoption certificate! Our tree is #25 out of a approximately 2,500 sugar maples in the Anderson Family Sugarbush. It stands 35 feet 4 inches high and has a diameter of 42.5 inches.

With bottles of Anderson’s Grade A syrup on our shelves and Anderson’s Grade A and Grade B available in bulk, we knew we just had to adopt one of their maple trees! By adopting a maple tree we strengthen our connection to the tree’s natural cycle – we can tour the sugarbush and visit our tree We also get email updates for fall color change and spring harvest as well as a chance to get to know your tree using GoogleEarth.

Our maple tree’s sap run was between March 7-31, 2011 and produced about 18.5 gallons of sap. I’m not sure what that boils down to in terms of syrup, but I like to think that some of it made its way into some of the the bottles on our shelves.

If you’ve never tried maple syrup, there’s no better time! This weekend we’ll have samples out:

West 7th store: April 8, 3-6pm
Selby store: April 9, 3-6pm

Also, for the month of April, we have Anderson’s Maple Syrup on sale:
Anderson’s Grade A Maple syrup, 16 oz - sale $9.99 (reg. $10.99)
Anderson’s Grade A Maple Syrup, 32 oz - sale $21.99 (reg. $21.99)
Anderson’s Grade A Maple Syrup, 64oz - sale $37.99 (reg. 43.99)

 

The Anderson Family. Left to right: Alison, Steve, Norman and Janice Anderson. Norman was inducted into International Maple Syrup Hall of Fame in 2009.