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A Chefs Guide to NutsA Chefs Guide to Nuts

August 1, 2007

9 Min Read
A Chefs Guide to Nuts

Nuts. Talk about an ingredient with a track record: They were an important source of nourishment in prehistoric times, and they still are. Today, consumer interest in nuts has been fueled by marketing campaigns, nutrition research and culinary innovation, placing them in the trend spotlight.

Tree nuts, such as almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts, and ground nuts, such as peanuts, are versatile, have a value-added, healthy halo, and, most important, they taste good—on their own and in myriad applications. The food mood of the moment is nothing short of schizophrenic, as two seemingly contradictory movements—health consciousness and culinary pleasure— flourish side by side. But product designers have ample opportunity to simultaneously capitalize on both of these driving factors.

Nuts can layer on flavor, because they blend well with other ingredients. Each nut provides its own buttery nuance, yet is subtle enough to lend richness to an entire formulation without overpowering it. Along with that comes the cachet and value of a clean ingredient.

Exterior impressions 

Adding nuts to breading and coating systems adds interest and value in the consumer’s mind. Broken, chipped and visually off- or mixed-grade chopped nuts can economically coat or encrust proteins or sweets, applications where they’ll be further processed anyway. Sliced, diced, chopped and slivered almonds and hazelnuts add rustic appeal for encrusting and work best on quicker-cooking items, such as seafood and cheese. For breading, nuts work on their own or mixed with panko or other breadcrumbs or grains, and with herbs, spices or even cheese. For added health and flavor appeal, consider nut milks as part of the batter formula.

Even the skins of different nuts can come into play. Nut skins create a rich, hearty presence that stands up well with more-flavorful proteins, and this is when the slightly bitter aftertaste from the skins can work to your advantage, as exemplified by the Pecan- Crusted Chicken Salad at T.G.I. Friday’s, Carrollton, TX.

Spread the flavor around 

The number of nutty sauces on menus continues to grow. Pestos, in particular, are being updated, including bagna càuda, from the Piedmont region of Italy, often composed of garlic, anchovies, walnut oil, butter and cream, and picada, a Spanish sauce typically created with garlic, blanched almonds and hazelnuts, bread, parsley and olive oil.

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dips and spreads based on nuts, beans and vegetables are popular as snacks or appetizers in the tapas or meze style. Whole nuts ground to specification, meal or nut butter help create authentic versions or adaptations of nut dips like Egyptian dukkah (chopped nuts, herbs and spices, served with olive oil), French caviar de poivrons (bell peppers, garlic, onion and walnuts) or Persian bademjan (a mix that often includes eggplant, tomatoes and walnuts). Take some creative license with tapenade or roasted-red-pepper spread by adding nuts. Nut butters also provide a base to layer on the flavors. For example, start with almonds and add yogurt, honey, soy, ginger and mustard for an Asian almond dip that complements vegetables or serves as a base for salad dressing.

Many ethnically inspired nut sauces can be converted to thicker versions for use as dips or spreads. And, on the heels of the chimichurri trend, these same nut sauces and dips can be thinned out as full-flavor grilling or roasting pastes with ethnic flair.

From soups to milks 

Nut soups are regaining popularity, and traditional, nut-based soups are a great launching point for creating unique versions. Consider variations of spicy African, Malaysian, Southern or Creole peanut soups; Algonquin paganens (based on hazelnuts); classic curried cashew soup; or Spanish ajo blanco (white gazpacho with blanched almonds, sometimes hazelnuts, and the nuts’ milk, along with garlic).

Nut milks add flavor and dairylike richness, and are a healthy and interesting alternative for anything creamy where a clean flavor is desired. Using nut milk in place of cream or rich stocks can also allow a salt reduction. In addition to traditional beverages such as horchata, nut milks are great in coffee drinks, smoothies, hot and cold soups, batters, and custards, giving them a lightly nutty flavor and richness. A creative alternative to dairy or soymilk, almond milk is finding its way onto dessert menus as a light, aromatic choice in panna cotta, crème brûlée, fillings and frozen desserts. As a base for custard, nut milks can add an ethnic flair to a dessert menu. A Mexican almond pudding called almendrado, molded and finished with a rich custard sauce, or sholeh zard, a Persian saffron pudding commonly made with basmati rice, sugar, almonds and almond milk, pistachios, saffron, cardamom, rosewater, and cinnamon, are at once both exotic and homey.

Nutty accessorizing 

Nuts’ versatility works across all meal times as a crunchy, nutritional companion for protein, produce, grains and legumes. Whole nuts make a statement when used as a topping. Product designers can dial in the flavor and crunch factor by roasting, toasting, smoking, spicing, glazing or candying. In some cases, the specific nut variety can help achieve the desired flavor profile or performance. Nuts that have a wrinkled skin, for example, improve spice or flavor adherence.

Croutons were once salads’ proverbial crunch-providers. But new salads take advantage of the healthy halo of nuts, bundled with consumer interest in techniques that bring out the nuts’ flavor, texture and aroma. Sliced nuts are obvious for topping salads, such as the field greens with toasted almonds, goat cheese, cinnamon marinated pears, dried cherries and pomegranate vinaigrette at Fez, Phoenix, AZ.

Baked greats 

The oven rack has been raised, and consumers are demanding more from their carbohydrates— more flavor, more nutrition, more variety. Nuts enhance the image of baked goods, pastries and desserts by adding dimension and diversity. Replacing all or some of the flour in a formula with nut flour adds interest and positively modifies nutritional profiles in common recipes, such as bread, pie crust and even tortillas. Almond flour and meal, for instance, reduce carbohydrates while increasing protein, fiber and other nutrients without adversely affecting product functionality.

Pastry chefs have taken the pleasure of nuts to new heights, not only with classic nut combinations, but by playing with form and function, switching out or doubling up nut varieties, and adding an extra touch by roasting or glazing. Last fall, Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia, served a sponge cake that combined almonds, white chocolate and apples with white almond mousse, caramelized apples, white chocolate cinnamon cream, caramel and a white chocolate glaze.

In many modern, downsized desserts, nut size matters only to the extent that visual appeal is required, such as placing one perfect nut atop a cookie or tartlet. Smaller sizes and even cosmetically damaged nuts are perfect for manufacturing and foodservice applications that require chopping, pounding or grinding.

Snacks and sweets 

America’s on-the-go lifestyle fuels the market for out-of-hand snacks, both sweet and savory, with 28% of new nut introductions in 2006 in the snack category, as noted in the “2006 North America New Product Overview” from The Sterling Rice Group, Boulder, CO. Trend guru A. Elizabeth Sloan, president, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, CA, encourages operators and manufacturers to take advantage of the growing bar business by offering upscale bar snacks that have little in common with what your grandfather enjoyed with his Scotch. Adding trendy flavors, spices and texture to nuts, which may also happen to induce thirst, is a creative and money-making proposition in foodservice. Think how ancho chile and cocoa nib spiced nuts or Thai ginger and wasabi “cracker jax” would sell both your creativity—and your drinks.

Interest in internationally inspired confections is on the upswing. Consider the exoticsounding gianduja, an Italian roasted-hazelnut and chocolate treat, and torrone (or turrón in Spain), an almond and honey nougat confection, as inspiration for American variations. How about praline, clusters, turtles, bark and “glass” making their comeback eaten out of hand and as an alluring component of composed desserts? The combinations of sweets and nuts are practically limitless.

Candy, the ultimate small indulgence, continues to evolve as pastry chefs and product developers push the limits of flavor and ingredient combinations, often using nuts as a catalyst. Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto, Chicago, has presented a “luxuriously healthy” chocolate-coated Pinot Noir bar made with a gooey filling of lees, the grape sediment that settles during fermentation, caramel and chocolate, topped with a layer of crunchy sliced almonds and puffed rice. And, if that weren’t enough, another of his desserts, Cantu’s USB Candy Corn, is a take-home mixture of popcorn and whole, natural almonds, coated in white truffle caramel with orange zest, thyme and black pepper, packaged in a sealed plastic bag inside of a small tin paint can, along with a USB chip showing a video of how the recipe is made. The can is labeled with edible paper made from almonds.

More down-to-earth nutty twists on old-fashioned favorites are also great as stand-alone treats or to add flair to a plated dessert. Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, New York, has a cult following for its haute version of the Nutter Butter® cookie. Red Lobster’s Bananas Foster Cheesecake comes garnished with a crunchy toffee almond crisp.

Nut butters add interest to sweet and savory foods, while pastes (typically a 50-50 mixture of ground nuts and sugar) and marzipan (with almonds and up to 80% sugar and syrup) star in bakery, confection and ice cream applications. One option is to blend flavored oils (orange, lavender, etc.) with marzipan for new flavor combinations, or whip marzipan with cream and create small balls to serve as an all-inone sweetener, flavoring and cream with coffee service.

At the Culinary Institute of America’s Baking & Pastry Retreat in April of this year, there was a buzz about macaroons with fashion-forward flavor combinations. These are not the coconut macaroons we grew up with. Miette, San Francisco, for example, features almond, hazelnut and pistachio versions filled with chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, vanilla, lavender and rose geranium. The Modern at New York’s Museum of Modern Art offers buttermilk panna cotta trifle with raspberry gelée, pistachio macaroon and fresh mango.

Smaller portion size, portable and mix-and-match options meet, and exceed, the demands of today’s consumer. (And, by the way, can I get that to go?) Numerous small choices made from wholesome, natural ingredients, such as nuts, serve up a valuable source of protein, good fat and important nutrients. In addition to offering good nutrition, each crunchy nut is its own tasty reward: rich in one-of-a-kind flavor and texture. 

Robin Schempp is co-founder and president of Right Stuff Enterprises (est.1992), Waterbury, VT, a culinary consultancy focused on concept, product, menu and market development with a wide range of clients, such as the Almond Board of California. Among her many volunteer pursuits, she serves as vice chair of Chefs Collaborative and co-chairs the National Nominating and Board Development Committee for the Research Chefs Association. She also multitasks at every opportunity by eating and drinking well—all, of course, in the name of R&D.

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