A handful of nutty ideas; buying, roasting and skinning tips

Special to The Washington PostDecember 25, 2013 

Go nuts in the kitchen for the holidays. They will seduce you and your guests with their delicious flavors and textures, and they'll give your table an international flair.

With each crunchy bite, you will also be helping your joints loosen, giving your heart a little assist, and taking in protein, energy and fiber. All but one of the accompanying recipes are on the spicy side, so they practically demand a stylish cocktail. They make perfect gifts for the holidays, so do as I do: Type up or write out the recipes and package them, along with the nuts, in small bowls or vases. Your friends will be ever grateful.

Buying

• Although nuts in the shell keep longer than those out of the shell, it is impossible to judge their freshness. Nuts are harvested in late summer and fall, so logically they should be perfect for the holidays, but find out when they were harvested. Avoid any whose shells are cracked.

• Buy nuts from a shop where there is plenty of turnover, which indicates a better chance of freshness.

• Use your eyes. The nuts should have a light, even color without dark or oily spots. They should look plump; a shriveled, dried-out nut won't taste good. If nuts are packaged, check the "sell-by" date.

• Use your nose. If the nuts are in bulk, smell them. There shouldn't be an oily or off aroma.

• Use your palate. If the nuts are in bulk, taste them. Any reputable store should let you do that.

• Pay special attention when you buy pine nuts, walnuts and pecans; those are particularly perishable, as they are among the oiliest nuts.

• Online nut sources I like: Jaffe Brothers at organicfruitsandnuts.com; Sun Ridge Farms at sunridgefarms.com; Trufflebert Brothers at trufflebertfarm.com (organic hazelnuts); Joe C. Williams at joecwilliams.com (pecans); Buchanan Hollow Nut at bhnc.com; Sunnyland Farms at sunnylandfarms.com.

Storing

• Store shell-on nuts in a cool, dark spot when you get them home, and crack them/use them as soon as you can.

• During the holidays, you're likely to use up nuts quickly. They'll keep in an airtight container in the dark for about two weeks. If you don't plan to use them that soon, seal them in a plastic bag and/or container, label it, and store them in the freezer. (I measure them first, so I'm sure what I've got.) This is true for all nuts, nut flour (also called "meal") and sliced nuts. Nuts can be used without being defrosted.

I have a rule of thumb for roasting nuts, but it varies based on the freshness and moisture content of the nut, the type of oven, the depth of nuts in the pan. Nuts help you know when they are toasted by filling the kitchen with their aroma. Stay close by your roasting nuts so that you can smell when they are ready; they will burn in an instant.

To roast nuts, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread the nuts in a single layer in a metal baking pan or baking sheet. Roast until they begin to send a gorgeous, nutty aroma through the house, which can take anywhere from seven to 15 minutes. Check them after seven minutes, then every five minutes after that. Once they are roasted to your liking (I like mine on the dark, rather than light, side), let them cool thoroughly before storing them. Once cooled, they are fragile and should be used or frozen immediately.

Nuts can be skinned after they're roasted, but different nuts require different techniques:

• Andy Ricker, chef-owner of the famed Thai street food restaurant Pok Pok in New York, taught me a trick for skinning peanuts. He lets them fall into a bowl in front of a fan, which blows away the skins. You can also do this by blowing on them as they drop into a bowl. Another method is to rub peanuts in a sieve, then shake them vigorously. The skins fall to the bottom of the sieve; then you have to pick out the skinned peanuts one by one. The takeaway lesson: There isn't an easy way to remove skins from peanuts.

• Hazelnuts are a little easier. Roast them, then transfer them directly to a tea towel. Fold the towel over the nuts and let them cool, then vigorously rub off the skins in the towel. If some hazelnut skins are stubborn, you can roll them between your fingers, or if they can afford more roasting, return them to the oven and repeat. Some skin left on a hazelnut will not adversely affect a dish.

• Almonds are simple. Bring a pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add raw, unsalted almonds; once the water returns to a boil, use a slotted spoon or Chinese skimmer to transfer the nuts to a colander. As soon as the almonds are cool enough to handle, squeeze them on their fat ends, and they will pop right out of their skins. If they become cool and the skins stick to the nut, just dip them back into the hot water.

• Walnuts are tough to skin, and few recipes call for them that way. But it is possible and the results are stunningly delicious. Plunge raw, unsalted walnuts in boiling water for one minute, remove them, and with a paring knife, peel off all the gold skin you can.

• Roast pistachios, then follow the directions for hazelnuts above, or roll the nuts individually between your fingers.

-- Loomis is the author, most recently, of "Nuts in the Kitchen" (HarperCollins, 2010). She blogs at onruetatin.com.

Hot Cashews

8 servings (2 cups)

The cashews become crisp and extra savory after a quick fry, and bright/hot once they're adorned with fresh red peppers and lime juice.

It's best to have a thermometer for monitoring the temperature of the oil.

This recipe, and the others, from cookbook author Susan Herrmann Loomis, who blogs at onruetatin.com.

Ingredients

2 cups mild oil, such as peanut or canola

2 cups raw, unsalted cashews

Sea salt

3 small, fresh medium-to-hot red peppers, cut crosswise into thin slices

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Steps

Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl.

Heat the oil in a wok or deep saucepan over medium or medium-high heat. Once the temperature reaches 375 degrees, add the cashews. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly, until the nuts are deeply golden.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the nuts to the fine-mesh strainer to drain. Salt them generously, tossing to distribute the salt evenly. Drain for 10 minutes, then transfer the cashews to a mixing bowl. Add the peppers and toss to incorporate.

Sprinkle the lime juice over the mixture, then toss again to distribute evenly. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Cool completely before serving or storing.

Nutrition Per serving: 240 calories, 7 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Curried Pumpkin Seeds

8 servings (2 cups)

These are good on their own, as a garnish for soups or salads, or in a mixture with other spiced nuts.

Ingredients

2 cups hulled, unsalted pumpkin seeds (may substitute squash seeds)

1 tablespoon mild curry powder

2 tablespoons tamari or other Japanese soy sauce

Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a rimmed baking sheet at hand.

Combine the pumpkin seeds with the curry powder and tamari or Japanese soy sauce in a mixing bowl, stirring until well coated, then spread them on the baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time, until the seeds become golden brown and crisp and begin to pop.

Cool completely before serving or storing.

Nutrition Per serving: 190 calories, 9 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Dukkah

12 to 18 servings (1- 1/2 cups to 2- 1/2 cups, depending on how finely chopped)

Serve this aromatic blend of nuts, seeds and spices alongside a bowl of extra-virgin olive oil, and fresh bread or crudites. Dip the bread into the oil, then into the dukkah.

It also can be sprinkled over a steamed fish fillet, roast chicken just out of the oven, salad, cooked grains, yogurt and soups.

Ingredients

3/4 cup skin-on raw hazelnuts or skin-on raw, unsalted almonds

1/2 cup white sesame seeds

1/2 cup hulled unsalted pumpkin seeds

3 tablespoons coriander seed

3 tablespoons cumin seed

1 tablespoon fennel seed

2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

2 scant teaspoons fleur de sel or fine sea salt

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

Steps

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the hazelnuts or almonds on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast for about 8 minutes, just until fragrant. If you're using hazelnuts, immediately transfer them to a clean dish towel. Fold and close the towel so the nuts will steam and cool. Rub them in the towel to loosen the skins. If some skins do not come off, return those hazelnuts to the oven to toast for 5 more minutes, then repeat the towel method for removing the skins. Discard the skins. (The almonds do not need to be skinned.) Cool, then transfer to a food processor.

Spread the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat; toast for 3 or 4 minutes, shaking the pan often to avoid scorching. The seeds should turn golden and smell nutty. Transfer to the food processor. Repeat the skillet step with the pumpkin seeds, transferring them to the food processor.

Place the coriander seed in a small, heavy skillet over medium heat; toast for about 45 seconds, just until it begins to become fragrant. Transfer to the food processor. Repeat with the cumin seed and fennel seed.

Add the black pepper, fleur de sel or fine sea salt and the paprika.

Make sure the mixture is completely cool, then pulse until coarsely or finely ground, to taste, being careful not to over-process or the nuts will become oily and start to clump together. Transfer to a bowl for serving.

Nutrition Per serving (based on 2- 1/2 cups, 18 servings): 90 calories, 3 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 240 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Peppery Peanuts

8 servings (2 cups)

The blend of three peppers here turns peanuts into something special. Sarawak pepper has a floral, fruity, soft flavor; it is available at Penzeys Spices stores and at some Whole Foods Markets. Tellicherry pepper may be substituted.

Feel free to use cashews instead of peanuts.

Ingredients

2 cups shelled raw, unsalted peanuts

1- 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon finely ground Sarawak black pepper (see headnote)

2 teaspoons finely ground Szechuan pepper

1 teaspoon piment d'espelette (may substitute medium-hot paprika)

1 tablespoon fleur de sel

Steps

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast for about 8 minutes or just until fragrant. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Drizzle the nuts with the oil and toss to coat.

Whisk together the Sarawak pepper, Szechuan pepper, piment d'espelette and fleur de sel in a small bowl, then sprinkle the mixture over the peanuts. Toss to coat evenly, then spread on the same rimmed baking sheet you used to toast the nuts. Roast for 10 or 11 minutes, until golden.

Cool completely before serving or storing.

Nutrition Per serving: 220 calories, 10 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 620 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

Walnut-Stuffed Dates

8 to 10 servings

Finishing these stuffed dates with a sprinkling of fleur de sel turns them into a delicacy worthy of gift-giving.

Ingredients

40 or more raw, unsalted walnut pieces

8 ounces pitted dates (about 40, from one 9-ounce container)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel, for garnish

Steps

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast for about 8 minutes or just until fragrant. Cool completely.

Stuff each date with a piece of walnut (or two).

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the dates and stir to coat. Cook until they are thoroughly heated through; this should take about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Season the dates with the fleur de sel. Transfer to a serving dish and serve right away, or freeze for up to 1 month.

Nutrition Per serving (based on 10): 130 calories, 2 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 15 g sugar

Spicy Cashews

16 servings; 1 pound

"Spicy" is an understatement. Line up your favorite refreshing beverage alongside, and watch as the heat builds after each handful. For a less potent batch, seed the peppers before you toast them.

Kaffir lime leaves are available at Indian markets and in the produce department of some Whole Foods Markets.

Make Ahead: The nuts can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

From Haidar Karoum, executive chef-partner of 2 Birds, 1 Stone in Washington.

Servings

Ingredients

12 dried red Thai chili peppers (see headnote)

8 kaffir lime leaves (see headnote)

1/4 cup canola oil

1 pound raw unsalted whole cashews

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Steps

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread the chili peppers and kaffir lime leaves on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the oil over them. Toast for 12 minutes or until fragrant. Cool, then transfer to a food processor; pulse until finely chopped.

Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil in a large wok or heavy skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the cashews and stir to coat. Stir-fry for 6 minutes, then add the garlic and remove from the heat. Stir (off the heat) to incorporate so the garlic cooks in the residual heat.

Add the salt, sugar and the chili pepper-kaffir lime leaf mixture, stirring until well incorporated. Cool before serving or storing.

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