Veggie of the Week - Nuts
sponsored by Coleman Farms
It's well known that peanuts aren't nuts, botanically speaking, but sort of underground beans. But, botanically, neither is an almond a nut, but rather the seed of a kind of peach with atrophied flesh. A lot of other things you'll find sold as nuts - cashews, brazil nuts, pistachios - aren't botanically classified as nuts, since they don't fit the botanical definition of 'nut', which is based on the fruit's morphology. The common or culinary definition is based on eating qualities and nutritional makeup. From this point of view a peanut, almond or cashew is a lot more like a walnut (which is a botanical nut) than it is like a pinto bean or like what we commonly think of as a fruit.
The eating qualities of nuts are distinctive enough that aspects of other foods are sometimes described as 'nutty': oily but not greasy, yielding to the teeth but frangible, somewhat crunchy but not hard, and with a complex flavor that develops in earth tones with hints of tobacco, sawdust or fruit, depending on the kind of nut. The oils are generally high in monounsaturates and contain some important oil-soluble vitamins. Together with a high oil content - generally over 50% by weight - nuts contain substantial amounts of protein, usually around 20%. The odd nut out is the chestnut, which is nutritionally quite similar to a cereal at around 7% fat and protein, the rest carbohydrate. Funnily enough it is a true nut.
In the U.S. nuts are usually sold as snacks. There's some justification for this, since nuts are a compact, easily carried and eaten source of calories, and calories, moreover, which, being largely protein and fats, enter the system slowly, providing a sustained source of energy. But, as this link ably argues, nuts are much more than a snack. I think there's reason to suspect that pretty much any food item would be acceptable combined with any other food item, were it not for the interference of cultural norms.
Nuts, however, are one of the few kinds of food that are easily found in standard American fare in every course from soup to nuts. This is not to say that nuts are found with any frequency in courses apart from dessert (or more generally 'afters'), where they happily appear in baked goods, ice creams and confectionary, as well as standing on their own or accompanying a cheese plate; but it would be a very fastidious diner who for aesthetic reasons objected to, say, cream of broccoli soup garnished with walnuts, or to pasta carcioffe e mandorle , a main course accompanied by nutty stuffing, or salad incorporating nuts or dressed with nut oil.
Because of their generally excellent keeping properties nuts are available year around at the Farmers' Market, but as we enter Autumn nuts from this year's harvest will appear, and they will be different from last year's. A higher water content in the fresh nuts will result in the almonds, particularly, being a bit more chewy, while the walnuts will taste fresher and that bit 'green', with often a bit of astringency and the potential, if you eat more than a few, to cause sores inside the mouth. Both these irritating properties yield to very mild roasting, a treatment which can usefully enhance the flavor of most nuts. Nuts scorch very easily, though, so you should roast on a moderate heat - around 300 deg. F, stirring frequently and watching constantly.