Ten years ago, when our nut driven adventure began, we both combed through the troves of recipes compiled by our families. “Anything with nuts, anything with nuts” we chanted as we flipped through yellowed hand written index cards and indecipherable shorthand notes. A few stood out, genuine treasures that kindled childhood memories and compelled us back into the kitchen to recreate them. One of the best was from Andrea’s grandmother, the Muhammara, a red pepper and walnut dip that is redolent with pomegranate molasses and freshly ground cumin. We made big batches, and along with some sesame coated crackers and sweet nut filled cookies, we packed it up and sent it off to all publishers who were considering our book. When our book deal was signed, our editor gleefully told us how much she loved it. We knew it was a winner, and we were right. With its terra cotta hue and its fragrant flavor, it has gone from dip to chicken salad dressing and has found its way into countless catering menus on the way. You can find the recipe on page 73 of our book.
Ten years later, the previously unknown Muhammara can be found in half pint containers on the shelves of Trader Joe’s, stocked among the countless varieties of hummus and dips. And yesterday, a recipe similar to ours has appeared in the Dining Section of the New York Times. (http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017492-muhammara-red-pepper-and-walnut-spread) Clearly, by most measures, Muhamarra has arrived. Are we trendsetters, ahead of the curve as nut aficionados? Maybe. But we certainly know what delicious is!
The subject of nuts for a cookbook always evokes questions. How did you get interested in that? Why nuts and seeds? How did you chose them? And the most commonly asked one, what about nut allergies, and the people with them?
When we began our research for the book we addressed this question. We spoke to experts , scoured the literature for information. And our decision to not address allergies in any way came clear.
Nut allergies are serious and the lives of individuals with these allergies could be threatened by making any recipe in our book. There are no substitutions for nuts here. Sadly, those with nut allergies need to skip the book all together.
As nuts have ascended to culinary stardom they also have been demonized, sometimes with good reason. Since we have been on the road promoting the book countless people have told us that they would love to have us come and speak, the book is beautiful the say, but they work in a nut free facility. We understand the abundance of caution, respect the nut free facilities, and steer clear.
On this most recent trip to California I checked into my hotel and was greeted at the front desk with a warm chocolate chip cookie nestled in a paper bag. On the front was an emblem, not dissimilar to the bold no smoking signs we are so used to. It stated…”Warning: contains walnuts”. I was happy to find them in my cookie, and I’m relieved that an early warning system keeps those with allergies safe.
Colorful bottles of nut oils lined up on a store shelf make us want to go home and cook. Open the top and the essence of the nut is with you, as if you have cracked open a shell. But cooking with nut oils is not the same as cooking with the nuts and seeds themselves. Here is why:
Nut oils are fragrant delicate liquids that don’t hold up to much heat. We prefer the ones that are labelled cold pressed, because they have been created with care. When heat is added to the oil production process it denigrates the inherent flavors a tiny bit. Cold pressing extracts just the fats without heat harming the oil, and it’s name ” cold pressed” is as descriptive as can be. When people first gathered nuts and seeds to eat they soon learned that crushing them would release their oils, creating another useful product from the wonders around them. Now nut and seed oils are made in industrial settings with big steel rollers doing the work, no longer crushed between 2 stones as in times long ago. It may be quicker and therefore less expensive to apply heat, but cold pressed oils have flavors that are the essences of the nuts, truer and brighter than the warmed commercial alternatives.
The best use of most nut oils is in finishing a recipe, when no further heat is applied. We drizzle them on top of soups about to be served or whisk them in to salad dressings. A little goes a long way, their flavors are intense. We buy them in the smallest possible quantities because their shelf lives are limited, and we don’t want to waste a drop by spoilage. Keep them closed, cool and dry, and once opened, inside the refrigerator is the place to store them. We pair the flavor of oil with the same nut when we can. The oil elevates the nut’s inherent flavor, underscoring it’s best fragrant qualities.
Nuts make the news so frequently these days. I find articles more often in the science section than I do in the food section of the newspaper. Today’s brief article in the New York Times says that walnuts may curb diabetes in women. Eight ounces a month will reduce risk by 24 percent. Different nuts have countless benefits, but this seems an easy, delicious and positive addition to a well-rounded diet. The reason why they are so helpful? Their unique benefits have not been quantified yet, but the national institutes of Heath are on the case.