Nuts, Wholesome Goodness in a Hard Shell
Since the earliest of time and even before agriculture was used by the Greeks to produce better food resources, nuts were a staple food and nutritional source in the diet of man. During those times nuts were plentiful, as there were great forest areas than today, and they were well liked for their easy storage, which enabled people to keep them for times in which food was hard to find; the winter, the wet season, etc. There is evidence that as far back as the second century B.C., the Romans distributed sugar almonds on special occasions such as marriages and births.
Macadamia nuts are used for confectioneries or as snacks, and have also gained popularity in the kitchen as they have a very mild and subtle taste and add texture to salads, and hot dishes.
Nuts have their place in all cultures and through almost all cuisine around
the world. Nuts are popular with people of all ages for their subtle taste and
high fat and carbohydrate content. It is this subtle taste that Chefs in particular like when creating new dishes and variations.
Description and species
Under the category nuts, we understand anything from a seed to a legume or tuber. The peanut for example, is a legume, the Brazil nut and macadamia nut are seeds and almonds are the seed of a fruit similar to a peach.
Botanically nuts are single seeded fruits with a hard or leathery shell which contain an edible kernel, enclosed in a soft inner skin. Generally, all nut trees grow slowly but live long. Trees of walnut, chestnut or pecan continue to produce nuts often more than hundred years after planting.
Nut trees of any species are found all over the world. Almonds for example are found in California, Spain, Morocco, Italy and even Australia, whereas the walnut can be found anywhere from North America to the Andes and Persia to Australia. Asia also has a great variety of nuts. Ginkgo nuts in China, candle nuts in Indonesia and Malaysia, coconut in throughout southern Asia, cashew nuts in India and Malaysia and the Philippines, chestnuts in China and Japan, and the water chestnut which is found in China, Japan, Korea and the East Indies.
Some of the better known nuts:
Scientists consider the almond as a stone fruit, much like cherries, peaches and prunes. Because most people only know the seed (stone) of this fruit, it is generally accepted as a nut. Almonds on the tree look like small green peaches. When ripe the shell will open and reveal the nut in its shell.
There are various varieties of almonds. The bitter almond is in fact the kernel of the apricot, which was found growing wild in China as far back as the late Tang Dynasty (AD 619-907). This same apricot was taken to Europe and became the apricot fruit, which is now enjoyed all over the world. The bitter almond kernel is toxic in its raw state and must be boiled quickly and poached in a oven before being further used. It is primarily used in Chinese desserts like the almond bean curd.
The sweet almond is generally confined for fresh consumption. In 1986, California alone produced 70,000 tons of almonds, which is half of the world’s production. The almond has been cultivated around the Mediterranean since ancient times and can still be found wild in Algeria and around the black sea. Sweet almonds can be bought whole, shelled, cut in 1/2 with skin, without skin, flaked, blanched, slivered ground roasted or salted. They are used for snacks, marzipan, confectionery, and desserts as well asfor the production of liqueur essence, oil and cosmetic products.
Bunya bunya pine nut
The bunya bunya tree is a member of the pine family and grows almost everywhere in Australia. Originally the trees originated in the area of Brisbane and Rockhampton in Queensland, in the north east of Australia. Only the female trees are nut producing, and they yield a 2cm x 2.5cm nut in the pinecone.
In the old days, the bunya bunya pine nuts were staple food for the aborigines and also used in ceremonials. These days, the nuts have gained popularity through the trend of native food in Australia; bush food. The nut is rich is carbohydrate, similar to the chestnut, and therefore used more like a potato than a nut. Bunya bunya nuts can be eaten raw but are usually boiled for easy removal of the skin. Shelled nuts are then butter fried and flavored with pepper or sugar, or added to stews and soups.
Red bopple nut
The red bopple nuts are a relative of the macadamia nut, and native to the tropical rain forest of the East Coast of Australia. The nut is about the same size as a hazelnut and has a thick (0.5cm 0 1cm), woody husk with a bright red outer skin, which only appears if the nut is fully ripe.
In contrary to most other nuts, the red bopple nut is very low on fat, but very high in calcium and potassium. the low fat content make this nut very easily digestible. The nuts are eaten raw or toasted.
“He who plants a coconut tree”, the saying goes, “plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a habitation for himself and a heritage for his children”. Indeed every part of the coconut is used, but only the coconut milk and the coconut meat are foods. The shell is used as charcoal, the husk is used to make ropes, clothing and brushes, and the trunk of the tree and leaves are used for roofs of houses and building material respectively.
The fruit of the palm “cocos nucifera” has an edible kernel and therefore qualifies as a nut. The palm tree is native to the Philippines, Malaysia, Brazil and Indonesia, and can produce 50 – 100 nuts a year, over a life span of 70 years. Coconut palms grow best close to the seaside but have been proven to withstand high altitude, although the production rate is diminished the further away from the sea the tree grows. The large thick green pod encloses a brown fibrous husk around a brown shell which contains a layer of soft white flesh and the clear water in the center. Sub-species found only on one island of the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, produces a nut often weighing more than 20 kg, which needs 10 years to ripen.
Coconuts are the worlds most commercially used nuts. In particular the meat, or copra, as it is called after being dried by the sun, is vital for the export industries, in coconut growing countries. The coconut is a important food source especially in South East Asia, India, Brazil and the South Pacific Islands.
The copra can be brought shredded or desiccated and is used in confectioneries, ice creams and to coat chicken or fish for frying. However much of it is pressed for its oil also called coconut butter as it is white and fatty at room temperature. Not only is it used for cooking and to make margarine, but it also goes into soaps, detergents, shampoos, face cream, perfumes and candles. It is also a major ingredient in glycerin, synthetic rubber, safety glass and hydraulic brake fluid. Coconut juice or milk is the natural juice of the nut, but not the water inside the coconut. It is won by shredding the raw coconut meat, then adding water and straining the mixture through a cotton cloth. Coconut milk has then the consistency and color of skim milk and is available canned or frozen.
The candle nut gets her name from a time when it was threaded tightly on the midrib of a palm leaf and used as a primitive candle. More recently, the nuts were ground to a paste, mixed with copra (grated coconut meat) and then formed into a candle.
Candle nuts are the seed of the candle berry tree native to Indonesia and Malaysia but widely spread throughout south East Asia, the South Pacific and Sri Lanka. The nut has a very high content on fat and is valued for the extracted oil for lighting as well as cooking. The nut is colored gray to black, about 5cm in diameter, with a thin, papery husk containing one or two nuts.
Candlenut oil for lighting purposes is extracted by roasting the nuts when they are only half ripe as oil for cooking is extracted by roasting the nuts when they are fully ripe. For human consumption, the nuts have to be roasted as raw they can cause sickness. Ripe candle nuts are roasted, then pounded into a meal and mixed with salt, chilies or shrimp paste for usage in curries or as a spicy condiment to curries. Traditionally, the Javanese have roasted the nuts for eating whole.
The palmyra palm native to most South East Asian Countries produces a hard, shiny nut, from which a sweetish sap or gel is extracted. While this sap is used in Indonesian cuisine for soups and desserts, there is another well known product yielded from the palmyra palm; Palm Sugar (gula melacca). There is no reliable
data available on the nutritional value of the palm nut, but it is widely known that the fat is saturated.
Native to Queensland and New South Wales in Australia, the macadamia nut takes its name from Dr John McAdam, a scientist and early promoter of the cultivation of Australia.
Macadamia trees are evergreen and reach a height of up to 20 meters. The edible seed of the silk oat tree has a very hard, light brown shell, 2 -3cm in diameter. In 1888, macadamia trees were planted in Hawaii where through careful cloning and hybridization, it became an important commercial product.Today, macadamia nuts are also cultivated in South Africa, Zimbabwe, California and parts of South and Central America.
It is very difficult to crack the macadamia nut as its shell is very hard and so tight to the kernel that when cracked the nut is smashed. In Hawaii, American scientists developed a way of separating the kernel from the shell by shrinking them in drying bins. They then developed the first commercial cracker. It was through these two developments that the macadamia nut could be transformed to the commercial importance it has today. This is also the reason why macadamia nuts are generally available already de-shelled.
Macadamia nuts also are valued for their oil and the macadamia nut butter. They are available roasted and salted. When buying macadamia nuts, take care that they are packed in a air tight or vacuum bags, as they become easily rancid once opened. Macadamia nuts are used for confectioneries or as snacks, and have also gained popularity in the kitchen as they have a very mild and subtle taste and add texture to salads, and hot dishes. The oil makes excellent vinaigrette and cold sauces.
The name refers to a nut like tuber of a aquatic plant called Trapa. The plants are common to several parts of the world, but are mainly used in Japan, China and Thailand where it is also a sought after ingredient in cuisines.
The trapa plant roots in ponds and lakes and sends its leaves to the surface, similar to a water lily. The water chestnut grows on the roots underneath the water surface. Water chestnuts are flat and round with a diameter of 5 – 7cm. They have a soft black skin and white flesh similar to the flesh of a coconut. Once peeled, they can be eaten raw, or dried and are a well liked ingredient because of their crunchy texture, and sweet subtle taste. Water chestnuts are also boiled and made into flour, which is used for thickening of sauces and dishes, much like cornstarch.
Chestnuts are thought to have originated in Southern Europe and Persia even though they are also found in China, Japan and Northern America.
The nuts of the chestnut tree have a brown shiny color and leathery shell. They can be eaten raw, but mostly are consume boiled, baked or roasted or as a chestnut puree sweetened or unsweetened. They are also sold in syrup as marron glaces. Chestnuts are the only nuts, which are treated like a vegetable because they contain more starch (30%) and less fat 3%. Chestnuts are also made into a flour high on fiber and starch.
Originating in the West Indies and native to the north of Brazil, Portuguese xplorers introduced the nut to India and Malaysia as well as parts ofAfrica.
The hard-shelled nut grows inside the cashew apple. When mature the cashew nut appears at the end of the red or yellow apple. The cashew tree is a member of the poison ivy family and farmers must take great precautions when extracting the nuts. The hard shell contains an oil, which irritates the skin, so the nuts are heated to extract the kernel. The smoke and steam,which occurs however may still be harmful to skin and eyes. When heated the cashew nuts are harmless and may be extracted.
The ginkgo is the prehistoric maidenhair tree, which survives as a wild tree only in China. The fruit looks like a tiny plum but has a foul and bitter shell. The Chinese wait for the smelly hull to fall off, then paint the nuts and use them for festive decorations, before they crack them open to eat the nut.
In Japan and Korea, ginkgo nuts are skewered and then grilled, which turns the nuts from yellow to green. In China, the ginkgo nut is a popular ingredient to vegetarian dishes. The nuts can be obtained fresh or canned.
The nut of the hazel bush is native to Europe and North America and was mentioned in writings as far back as 2838 B.C., and was credited of curing many human ills as well as being considered excellent for use as a hair tonic. Some say that the name filbert comes from Saint Philibert, a French abbot whose feast day on 22 August coincides with the ripening of the first nuts in the Northern hemisphere.
Hazelnuts have a very hard shell, which has to be cracked by a nutcracker before getting to the kernel. Hazelnuts are available, raw, blanched, or toasted, chopped, ground, for cooking as well as in a liquor.
The peanut is not a true nut. It is the seed of a leguminous plant with a soft, brownish colored brittle shell and belong to the Botanical family of beans and peas. But they are usually considered along with the nuts because of their physical characteristics and nutritional value. The nuts grow on the long roots of the plant and below the ground.
The peanut is native to Brazil and has been found there ever since the first
record of it in 950 B.C.. Today, peanuts are cultivated throughout the tropics all over the world (India, China, West Africa, Australia and the USA are the largest peanut growing countries). Peanuts produce excellent oil, which is used for salads and cold dishes as well as for frying. Peanuts also produce peanut butter, margarine, and also used in canning of sardines. Peanuts are available whole, de-shelled and de-skinned and raw or toasted. Peanuts are used in all different varieties in everything from salads to main courses and desserts.
These are the edible seed of the pine tree and grow in the cone. Pine trees are found in the Southern USA, Mexico and around the Mediterranean sea. It is very difficult to establish pinenut production as the trees grow very slowly and do not carry a lot of fruit until they are 75 years old.
Pine nuts are mostly obtained raw and then toasted, fried or grilled. Pine nut oil is used for the cosmetic industry. Pine nut flour is used in confectionery.
The pistachio nut is a small green kernel, which grows on the pistachio tree originating in Syria, Palestine and Persia. The natural color of the shell is grayish white, but some times the nuts are dyed red to cover up some of the staining.
The pistachio nut is now cultivated in India, Europe, North Africa, Mexico, the USA and the Far East. Pistachios are usually sold in their shell or shelled and blanched. The greenish seed is used as flavoring in cooking, candies and ice cream.
The walnut is related to the hickory and pecan tree and grows anywhere from North America to the Andes and Europe to China. English walnuts, butternuts and hickory nuts are all walnuts, botanically speaking. All those walnuts have different shells and kernels but the English walnut with its rough, rippled shell and yellow brown kernel is the most popular and generally referred to as `The Walnut’.
Walnuts are bought in the shell or de-shelled and are sought after for their
oil, which is used for cooking as well as for salads and dressing.
Other commonly used nuts include Brazil Nuts from South America, Beech Nuts from the USA and Pecan Nuts from North America.
Nutritional value and information
Nuts are rich in fat (40-60%) and dietary fiber (5-15%) with a moderate amount of protein (2-25%) and small amounts of starch (up to 10%). As mentioned above chestnuts are an exception to this general rule.
The fats in nuts are mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated and contain no cholesterol as nuts are harvested from plants. Only the coconut and palm nut contain saturated fats.
Significant amounts of minerals can be found in nuts, including zinc, calcium, iron, phosphorus and magnesium. Nuts also contain some provitamins and vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin E & C. Nuts contain very little natural sodium and have a high amount of potassium. Unfortunately nuts are often sold salted as snacks, which upsets this natural balance, and by a over consummation of salted nuts people take in a lot of fat and salt.
Nuts are also a great source of energy and often used in diets for athletes. Used in moderate amounts, nuts in unsalted forms are nutritionally valuable food.
Uses of nuts for the professional chef
It is hard to know where to start to compile information about the uses of nuts and nut related products in today’s hospitality industry. In
kitchens, there is no limit on the number of dishes and creations in which a Chef can use nuts or nut products.
From appetizers to salads, soups and desserts, with cheese, fish, pasta, meats and vegetables, nuts are very versatile and do not have a over-powering flavor. Their subtle taste and crunchy texture make them easy to use as a supplement for many other ingredients.
Nut oils are also widely used for dressings, frying and flavoring of hot and cold dishes. Nut liqueurs can be a welcome supplement to savory sauces as well as pastry sauces and creams, marzipan and other nut pastes are often used to produced chocolates and confectionery items. In Indian cuisine, a cashew nut paste is often used for the thickening
of curries and sauces.
With the wide variety of different nuts around the world, nuts are used in almost all known cuisines and their nutritional value makes them an asset to so many diets since ancient days.