Monday, November 3, 2014

Ingredient Focus: Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds pack quite a few vitamins (such as folate and vitamin E) and minerals, along with fiber and protein, in their small sizes. Nuts, in particular, also contain quite a bit of fat. Luckily, most of the fat (except in walnuts) is monounsaturated. Walnuts and flaxseed are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid. One ounce of many nuts contains from 13 to 18 grams of fat, making them also a relatively high-kcalorie food. By comparison, seeds contain less fat and more fiber but still quite a few kcalories. Nuts and seeds also contain many phytochemicals.

Nuts usually grow on trees and are characterized by a hard, removable outer shell. Some commonly used nuts include the following:

  • Almonds were common ingredients in the cuisines of ancient China, Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East. Today much of the world's supply of almonds is grown in California. Almonds are sweet with a delicate butterlike flavor.
  • Brazil nuts are the firm but tender fruit of a South American tree. They have a clean, slightly oily taste. They are high in calories.
  • Cashews form on the bottom of a pear-shaped fruit. Because of the process needed to remove the shell, they are not readily available in the shell.
  • Macadamia nuts are grown in Hawaii, Australia, and Central America. They are high in cost and very high in fat (store in the refrigerator).
  • Peanuts probably originated in Brazil and are grown in the southern United States, among other places. Three types of peanuts are most commonly grown: Virginias and runners, which have red skins, and Spanish, which are smaller and have a skin that is more tan.
  • Pecans grow on huge trees native to the Mississippi River Valley. Georgia is the main source of pecans, which are wonderful all-purpose nuts. Kernels are best stored in the refrigerator.
  • Pine nuts, also known as pignoli, are popular in Italian cuisine, where they are used in rice, sauces, and cakes. They are also used in Turkish, Middle Eastern, and Mexican cooking. There are two varieties: the Mediterranean or Italian pine nut, with a light flavor, and the Chinese pine nut, with a stronger flavor.
  • Pistachios, originally from the Middle East and Asia, are now grown in California. The pistachio shell splits naturally as part of the ripening process. Pistachios were originally dyed red by importers to cover stains in imported nuts. Most California pistachios are sold with their natural ivory shell.
  • Walnuts were introduced to California by the Franciscan fathers in the 1700s. The mellow flavor of the walnut works well with a variety of foods. Most walnuts marketed in the United States are the English variety. The black walnut is sweet and has a deeper flavor. Walnuts are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Nuts in the shell can be stored at room temperature in a cool, dry location. Once shelled, most nuts need to be refrigerated.

Nuts are used in all their forms and styles (whole, sliced, pieces, ground, butters, oils) in baked goods, in stews and ragouts, and as toppings for salads, cooked vegetables, and entrées. Nuts often add eye appeal and an unexpected change in texture. In part due to their high calorie and fat content, nuts are often used in small amounts. By toasting or roasting nuts, you can bring out a more intense flavor and use less. Small amounts of flavorful nuts and seeds can often replace fats such as butter or margarine. Other foods, such as pumpkin seeds or roasted chickpeas, can also be used to replace part or all of the nuts in a dish and still provide a crunchy texture.

Seeds are versatile as well.

  • Pumpkin seeds are common in the cuisines of Austria and parts of Mexico, where people like their zesty flavor. Pumpkin seeds can be coated with olive oil and roasted to bring out their nutty flavor, then tossed on salads. Pumpkin seeds can also be pulverized into a thick powder or paste and used as a thickener, or toasted and used as a crust. In Austria, pumpkin seed oil, which has a very strong flavor, is used in small amounts in salad dressings. It is used in the United States now as well by some chefs.
  • Sunflower seeds are large compared to seeds such as sesame and caraway. They can be used in casseroles, stews, vegetables, stuffings, or salads.
  • Sesame seeds and caraway seeds are often used in baking. Toasted sesame seeds can be sprinkled on soups, fish, and cooked vegetables for flavor and texture.

Seeds should be stored in a tightly covered container in a cool, dry, dark area.

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