Go nuts in the kitchen over 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl.
• Heat 2 cups mild oil, such as peanut or canola in a wok or deep saucepan over medium or medium-high heat.
• Once the temperature reaches 375 degrees, add 2 cups raw, unsalted 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 3 small, fresh medium-to-hot red peppers, cut crosswise into thin slices, and toss to incorporate.
• Sprinkle 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice over the mixture, then toss again to distribute evenly. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Cool completely before serving or storing. Makes about 2 cups (8 servings).
• Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread 40 or more raw, unsalted walnut pieces 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 1 tablespoon olive 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 fleur de sel. Transfer to a serving dish and serve right away, or freeze for up to 1 month. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Susan Loomis is the author, most recently, of "Nuts in the Kitchen" (HarperCollins, 2010). She blogs at onruetatin.com.