The show opens as Alton balances along a tree branch in search of the subject: nuts. No food, says he, delivers as much flavor, nutrition and versatility in such a small package. Most Americans think of nuts as cocktail diversions or perhaps the source of peanut butter. But whole nuts freed from their shells provide a lot of culinary opportunity and a lot of…Good Eats.
Our ancestors learned that nuts were enormously good sources of energy and protein. The body can store energy as sugar and fat (as anyone fighting the “battle of the bulge” knows). But protein is harder to store, and the body must have it to craft new cells, hormones, connective tissue, even skin.
Alton zips from forest to food store to teach the purchase of nuts. Buy in bulk as long as you’re sure the store has a good turnover. Avoid nuts with obvious damage or signs of mold. Choose nuts that feel heavy for their size. Shake the nuts; select those that make little or no noise. Those that sound like maracas have small or dried meats – not Good Eats. The exception being the peanut; these nuts always rattle. But they aren’t really nuts; they’re a kind of legume. Alton’s conversation with a nearby peanut vendor drives this point home and chases the irate man away.
Certain nuts, like macadamias and cashews, are normally available shelled only. Look for mostly whole nuts and a good even color. If you can get at a sample, break it – listen for a good clean snap. Mushy or rubbery texture is no good. Keep in mind that many packaged nuts have been salted or treated with extra oil. Recipes incorporating them may need amendment to compensate.
Inside their shells nuts are tough. Take them out and the story changes: nuts contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats contain sites where oxygen molecules attach – oxidized fats are rancid fats. The remedy is airtight storage, refrigerated storage (good for as long as six months) or even freezer storage. Limited air and low temperatures slow oxidation.
Most nuts work well in recipes but Alton’s top cooking choices are macadamia nuts, pistachios and cashews. These nuts work well with a variety of ingredients while maintaining elements of their own character. Other sorts of nuts are more individualistic.
The cashew evolved in South America but most of them are now grown in India. Cashew trees bear cashew apples. At the flower end of each fruit hangs a single cashew in a shell. When the fruit rots the cashew may be harvested. But inside the shell is a type of caustic oil (used as a termite repellant in furniture polishes). This oil also repels people and so it must be removed before consumption, which is why shelled cashews are rarely seen.
Alton starts with a cashew butter recipe that might replace peanut butter for many people. He starts with shelled cashews. His are unsalted, so a little kosher salt goes in next. While that processes, Alton warms a bit of honey and mixes it with some walnut oil. He processes that until a smooth emulsion forms. It’s better than peanut butter and an excellent base for a sauce: heat it with a little coconut milk and cayenne pepper and it goes very well with chicken.
The green pistachio, cousin to the cashew, also cooks well. The green color comes from chlorophyll (the same substance that gives leaves their color). Pistachio shells turn a light pink and split when the nuts are ripe but are normally pale. Bright red nuts have been dyed; the color adds nothing and Alton recommends avoiding this sort of nut.
Alton turns pistachios into pesto. Traditional pesto contains pine nuts, but pine nuts are rare and expensive, so the pistachio is a good substitute. Alton’s pistachio pesto starts with garlic. He drops a whole clove into a running blender and follows it with fresh thyme, tarragon, sage and oregano. He finishes with parsley, parmesan cheese, and of course, toasted pistachios. Once the blender chops these ingredients he drizzles in some olive oil – the cheap stuff is fine, no need to use the expensive extra virgin olive oil here. This pesto works as a spread for toast or with noodles.
Alton pauses to mention nut allergies. Check your guest list carefully; some sufferers cannot eat food prepared in the same location as a nut recipe. Nut allergies can be serious, to take precautions.
A dietician wanders by selling nuts and extolling their nutritional virtues: protein, antioxidants and omega-3 oils (the same beneficial oils found in fish). Nuts also lower the risk of heart attack and type 2 diabetes. They contain fats, but their unsaturated fats help the body lower cholesterol levels and decrease low-density lipoproteins (so-called “bad” cholesterol). They’re rich in vitamin E, minerals, and foliate (a B vitamin).
Pistachios play the leading role in Middle Eastern desserts. To the strains of a sitar, Alton chops pistachios in the food processor while he combines dates, dried apricots, golden raisins and dried cherries, then grinds these fruits into a paste. A little oil for the hands makes it easy and clean to work the paste and about half the ground pistachios together with a little orange juice and a little Crème de Cassis. He forms that into balls and rolls them in the rest of his pistachios. These treats will keep for up to a week in the chill chest.
The macadamia nut is actually from Australia. Over centuries it has been carried from island to island, finally reaching its new home: Hawaii. Alton makes them into a crust for mahi-mahi. It starts with a little hammering to crush the nuts finely. They’re combined with a little flour and some panko (Japanese) bread crumbs and melted butter.
Alton turns his attention to the fillets. He covers a sheet pan with foil and brushes the foil with vegetable oil. The fillets go on the foil with space between them. Season with kosher salt and black pepper and then Alton pops them into the oven for what he dubs a “parcook” – a brief warming that starts the cooking process. After just a few minutes Alton takes them back out and brushes them with coconut milk (sweetened condensed milk will do), then covers them with the nut crust. Careful arrangement of the foil keeps the crust on the fish, but Alton is careful not to cover or cramp the fish – that could prevent proper cooking. The filets go back in the oven until golden brown, then rest for a few minutes so the crust can solidify. This crust also works well with cheesecake – just leave out the fish.
Nuts, Alton concludes, are versatile players in the kitchen. They’re flavorful, flexible, and all around Good Eats. Share this article with your friends