Posted by Zel Allen's nutgourmet on December 2, 2009
As autumn approaches each year, I get a little antsy for freshly harvested nuts in the shell to reach the grocery store. This year’s fresh crop has arrived and is well worth the wait! Showing off their glorious colors, fresh nuts are noticeably more delicious—they’re sweeter, more moist, and have a distinctly fresh flavor. Don’t get me wrong; the nuts from last year’s crop are still great and have been stored with care to preserve them. It’s just that the fresh ones pop with flavor that compels me to keep reaching for another and another.
If you’re not a nut like me, you may not have noticed them yet—beautiful walnuts in their plump wrinkly shells that remind me of brains, almonds in their pitted golden shells with raggedy edges, pecans enclosed in deep red shells that look as if they’d been dyed, little round sable-colored hazelnuts that have a sort of musical sound when they clink together, and Brazil nuts with their large exotic-looking triangular chocolate brown shells that are a challenge to crack.
Sometimes I find bulk nuts piled into individual bins in the produce section, one bin for the walnuts, another for the almonds. But in recent years I found the nuts attractively packaged in three to five-pound mesh bags as a stunning, colorful mixture. I take them home and empty them into a sturdy woven basket with a strong handle. I call it my nut basket because I’ve outfitted it with the wildest selection of nutcrackers you’ve ever seen.
Friends who know I’m deeply into nuts have contributed an amazing array of nutcrackers to my collection that seems to joyfully multiply each year. There’s a special one that cracks walnuts with one squeeze and another that’s made for cracking macadamias. I have three very old nutcrackers that operate on the vice principle—no, those nutcrackers don’t do surgery on anyone—not even the Vice Principal—I was actually referring to the ones that simply work like vices where I place a nut between two metal parts and turn a crank to tighten the space between. Those three nutcracker vices are true antiques, rusted to perfection, wearing their 109 years with elegant dignity, and still working stalwartly.
I also buy bulk nuts already shelled for serious baking, but there’s something deeply bonding about sitting at the table with friends and placing the nut basket between us. It doesn’t take long before the ballet begins—the nut-cracking ballet, that is. You know, it’s the Nutcracker Sweet, and is it ever sweet. Pretty soon, there’s a giant pile of nut shells on the table, and still we reach for another nut, and then, another.
Nuts have a special way of bringing friends closer. They seem to invite sharing, not only the nuts themselves, but I’m often surprised at the conversations that flow after the first few nuts have been opened and tasted. Because of these opportunities, I’ve come to equate nuts with friendship.
During this holiday season, play the Nutcracker Sweet, enjoy good friends, and keep the nut basket handy. Now, I really must go—my pistachios are calling!
Posted in almonds, Brazil nuts, Cracking and Peeling Nuts, hazelnuts, Macadamias, Nut Oddities, pecans, pistachios, walnuts | Tagged: antique nut cracker, bulk nuts, fresh nuts, nut basket, nutcracker, Nutcracker Suite, nuts in shell, nutty ballet | 2 Comments »
Posted by Zel Allen's nutgourmet on February 12, 2009
Chestnuts reside on my favorite pedestal. There is a tendency for many people to avoid using fresh chestnuts because, admittedly, they are a bit time consuming to prepare. I promise, though, they are totally worth the time expended. Here’s the technique:
Using a firm, sharp paring knife, make a horizontal cut completely across the domed or rounded side of each chestnut. If both sides are flat, make the cut across one of the sides. Place the chestnuts into a large saucepan, and cover them with about 3 inches of water.
Cover the saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat just slightly to medium-high, and boil the chestnuts gently for about 25 minutes for the large Asian chestnuts purchased in the market and about 35 minutes for chestnuts grown in the U.S..
Roasting is another method of heating the chestnuts so the peels can be removed. Pile the crisscross-cut chestnuts onto a baking sheet and roast them at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool them slightly and peel away. Some chestnut aficionados suggest soaking the chestnuts for about 20 minutes before roasting, claiming it makes them easier to peel.
Still another method for heating chestnuts prior to peeling them begins with making a crisscross cut on the shell. Then put them into a large, deep skillet with a small amount of oil, about one tablespoon for each pound of chestnuts in the shell. Turn the heat to high and cook them for 5 to 10 minutes, tossing the chestnuts continuously with a wooden spoon or shaking the pan to prevent the direct heat from burning them.
I prefer the boiling method because sometimes the roasting and stove-top methods result in chestnuts that also need to be boiled to soften them enough for most recipes.
Now, prepare a cup of tea for yourself and sit down at the table with the pot of cooked chestnuts on a trivet. Have a bowl handy for the peeled chestnuts and another for the shells. Take out three or four chestnuts at a time and put them on a small dish or bowl in front of you. Cool them only slightly–they peel more easily when they are quite hot.
Using your paring knife, take hold of the shell close to a crisscross cut, and remove the shell with a pulling motion. You will also need to remove the brown inner skin as well. Be prepared for a little tug-of-war. Sometimes the inner skin is a bit stubborn. If it is too resistant, the chestnut may need to be cooked a few more minutes.
As the chestnuts cool, they become a little more challenging to peel. It’s best not to fight with them. Just put the pot back on the burner and heat them up for a few minutes so you can finish the task with ease. Just be sure there is enough water in the pot to cover the chestnuts. The job can actually be fun if you can convince your family to participate in the peeling project.
Posted in chestnuts, Cracking and Peeling Nuts | Tagged: boiled chestnuts, chestnuts, cooking chestnuts, peeling chestnuts, roasted chestnuts | 23 Comments »