By Barbara Kobsar with Illustrations by Helen Krayenhoff
With the shortening days of autumn, the falling of the leaves, and the distant thunder of the holiday season, I’m reminded that it’s time to gather nuts. It’s not just about squirreling them away, however. Nuts in the shell are at their freshest and best only once a year, at harvest time in autumn. Many local nut growers are currently bringing the new harvest to our markets.
Of course, stored nuts can be good to eat throughout the year, but only if they’ve been kept properly, since nuts are high in fat and are prone to rancidity. When storing them, keep in mind that they’ll do better in the shell than out; better whole than chopped, sliced, or ground; and better raw than roasted.
I use the word “nuts” loosely, since a biologist’s definition would exclude every item in your typical cocktail-party nut bowl except the hazelnuts. Peanuts are legumes, and all the rest of the nuts in a typical mix are really seeds. Four of my favorite local “nuts,” almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios, are the seeds of stone (or drupe) fruits.
(“A nut in botany is a simple dry fruit with one seed (rarely two) in which the ovary wall becomes very hard (stony or woody) at maturity, and where the seed remains attached or fused with the ovary wall.” —Wikipedia)
The more important fact about all these, whether they are true nuts or not, is that they are nutrient dense and have always been an important food source for man and beast, providing protein as well as essential fatty acids. Walnuts in particular have been recognized of late for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. A recent study funded by the American Institute of Cancer Research and published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer showed a significant drop in the risk of breast cancer in mice when their lifelong diet included a modest amount of walnut.
California provides the U.S. with virtually all of its walnuts and almonds and then exports enough to supply 75 percent of the world market. Most of that production comes from large Central Valley growers, but there are also many small growers, who are often integrating nut production into a diversified business model that strives to keep workers employed year-round.
Walnuts are recognized as the oldest tree food known to man, dating back to about 7000 B.C. The English walnut, named for the English merchant marines whose ships once transported walnuts around the world, is the variety most common in culinary use. If you cross the Central Valley on any farming road, you’re likely to be passing orchard after orchard of English walnut trees that have been grafted onto the rootstock of the Hinds black walnut. The Hinds is a tall Northern California native whose hardiness makes it good as rootstock, but whose nuts are too small to be commercially viable.
Once in a while I find a pleasant surprise waiting at the markets. A couple of years ago as I was walking by the stand for Lone Oak Ranch, a certified organic farm in Reedley, I spotted some shelled walnuts that were so intensely red that they brought back memories of those red-dyed pistachios. This red gem is for real, however. UC Davis researchers developed it in the late 1990s, so it’s only in the last few years that a crop has been on the market. No genetic modification here—the Livermore walnut, as it is called, is created through traditional methods, grafting a Persian red-skinned walnut onto the larger, creamier English walnut. Livermore walnuts are pricey, since the trees grow slowly and the nuts must be hand shelled if the meats are to retain their redness, but they’re worth it for the beauty alone.
Besides Lone Oak, other growers bringing fresh harvest walnuts to East Bay markets include Barbagelata in Linden, J & J Farms in Hughson, and Full Belly and Riverdog farms in Capay Valley.
In 2007, the USDA, FDA, and the California Almond Board passed a mandate requiring pasteurization of all raw almonds available in the USA, Canada, and Mexico in order to address possible salmonella contamination. The pasteurization is done by one of two methods: fumigation with propylene oxide (which is listed by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen) or application of heat (which raw food advocates claim devalues the nuts’ nutrients, enzyme activity, and antioxidants.) Fortunately, an exemption to the law allows direct sales of truly raw (unpasteurized) almonds from farmer to consumer through such outlets as farmers markets or CSA programs, and so many small growers are offering them. Some also sell almond butter, which is a delicious and versatile treat.
Home-toasted almonds are especially delicious and make an easy snack or salad addition. Start by blanching the almonds in boiling water for about 45 seconds, drain in a colander, and cool slightly under running water. Pop the skins off and spread out on a towel to dry. Then toss the nuts with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 2 teaspoons kosher salt (per pound of nuts) and spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake at 325º for approximately 15 minutes or until brown. Check the nuts every few minutes near the end of the cooking time since they can burn suddenly. Cool and use right away or store in an airtight container.
Note: Many people these days are soaking nuts (as well as seeds and grains) in saltwater overnight to neutralize enzyme inhibitors that are naturally present in these foods. “Nuts are easier to digest, and their nutrients more readily available, if they are first soaked in saltwater overnight, then dried in a warm oven (or dehydrator). This method imitates the Aztec practice of soaking pumpkin or squash seeds in brine and then letting them dry in the sun before eating them whole or grinding them into meal.” —Sally Fallon from Nourishing Traditions
California is a relative newcomer to pistachio production. Commercial planting began here in the 1970s, and since the trees need 15 to 20 years to mature before they produce a full crop, we are just seeing the beginning of what the state’s pistachio growers can do. The only real competition in the world market comes from Iran, but California’s potential to compete shifted drastically in the summer of 2010 when President Obama signed a ban on Iranian pistachio imports in response to that country’s nuclear policies.
Like almonds, walnuts, and pecans, pistachios are the seeds of a drupe fruit. The flesh of this fruit is very thin, and it’s usually removed during processing. As the seed (nut) inside dries, its tan shell splits open naturally. Pistachios, like many other nuts, are mechanically harvested. A machine clasps the trunk of the tree and shakes it vigorously so the nuts fall onto a catching frame.
The days of shelling pistachios are over for those that don’t enjoy the chore. Buying them ready shelled is a time-saving bonus when preparing dishes calling for shelled pistachios. When it comes to snacking I prefer to draw out the pleasure and open them one by one. Some are easy, but slightly split shells are a challenge. Save your teeth—insert a half shell from a previously opened pistachio into the split and twist to open.
One of the oldest native crops in North America, pecans are produced mainly in the southern states of Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. However, California has been gaining ground in pecan production, and there are a few growers in the East Bay. At the Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market, you can find John and Joyce Calvin selling pecans freshly picked from their trees at Calvin Acres in Oakley. They offer half-pound and one-pound bags of pecans in the shell as well as shelled. At the Walnut Creek, Orinda, and Lafayette markets, you can find Jim McKeown, the backyard farmer of Danville, shelling pecans with his inertia nutcracker. Read our story about Jim and his nutcracker in the Fall 2006 issue of Edible East Bay.
The chestnut is the only true nut of this bunch, but with its high carbohydrate and low oil content, it’s often treated as a vegetable or grain. A plentiful food source in times of famine, chestnuts have been called “the grain that grows on trees.” Their starchy meat can be ground to produce a glutenless flour that has proven a boon to those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or wheat allergy. Lacking gluten, however, this flour won’t bake up into a light loaf of bread. The traditional Tuscan chestnut cake, castagnaccio, is a flat, dense concoction of chestnut flour, olive oil, fresh rosemary needles, pine nuts, and raisins. (See recipe below.)
Generally regarded in the United States as a winter holiday food, the chestnut appears on the table in soups and stuffings, and as the star of the proverbial roasting ritual. I like to treat chestnuts as an exotic vegetable, roasting them alongside winter’s root vegetables and squash or tossing them in a stew.
Chestnuts must be cooked before eating, and both the hard outer shell and the bitter inner skin need to be removed first. Roasting or boiling makes shelling a whole lot easier. With either method, first cut an X in the flat side of the shell with the tip of a sharp knife to prevent the nut’s bursting.
To roast, place the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 425° for 20 to 25 minutes or until the X opens and the chestnuts are golden brown. Alternatively, place the nuts in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil for three minutes. Cool slightly but not completely before peeling, the nuts are much easier to peel when warm.
Chestnuts are quite perishable, so they should be stored inside a ventilated bag and refrigerated. If shippers and retailers do not store them properly, the nuts can become dry or moldy. For this reason, buying them directly from a local grower is a great idea, and we have three very nearby, Correia Chestnut Farm in Isleton (www.chestnuts.us ), Skyline Chestnuts in La Honda (www.chestnutsforsale.com), and Solano Mushroom Farm, who sell at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.
Enjoy, and see you at the markets!
Writer Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. She spends part of every week at the East Bay farmers markets scoping out fresh produce. When not roaming the produce aisles, she is behind her market stand selling Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from farmers’ market produce. Contact her at cotkitchen(at)aol(dot)com.
Castagnaccio: Italian Chestnut Cake
⅔ cup sultanas, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes
4 cups chestnut flour
¼ cup sugar
Zest of 1 orange
2½–3 cups cold water
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
¼ cup walnuts, chopped
¼ cup pine nuts
Preheat the oven to 375°. Lightly oil a 12-inch round cake pan with olive oil.
Place the chestnut flour, sugar, orange zest, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk to combine. Continuing to whisk, gradually add the water, a small amount at a time, carefully noting the consistency. You want the batter to be soft but not liquid. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and the raisins, stirring until well combined. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Combine the remaining tablespoon olive oil with the rosemary leaves, walnuts, and pine nuts. Sprinkle over cake. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the surface of the cake cracks. Remove the cake from the pan and allow to cool.
Cut into 8 wedges and serve. The traditional accompaniment is a glass of vin santo.