Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
After visiting relatives in Washington state late last year, I got reacquainted with a food that I enjoy but hardly sample other than in the occasional chocolate-chip cookie or coated in a honey-mayonnaise glaze and stir fried with shrimp. I intentionally stated that it was a food and not a nut as walnuts aren’t actually nuts, botanically speaking, but are drupes. But I guess it’s a lot harder to sell “waldrupes.”
Drupes Versus Nuts
Drupes consist of a fleshy outer covering containing the exocarp or skin and mesocarp or flesh, which encases a pit or stone containing the inner seed. Sometimes the fleshy mesocarp is the desired food source such as apricots, peaches, plums, nectarines, olives, cherries and mangoes.
However, most culinary nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios, cashews and macadamias as well as coffee are cultivated primarily for the inner seed.
The only true nuts are chestnuts, hazelnuts (filberts) and acorns because the endocarp contains both the fruit and the seed. And by the way, peanuts are neither drupe nor nuts, they’re legumes.
Our Washington state family always eagerly anticipates the arrival of fresh Oregon walnuts in late November from the Schuh Farms fruit stand in Mt. Vernon. Uncle Richard purchases about 10 pounds of walnuts that he uses for baked goods but also to distribute to friends who don’t make that annual pilgrimage anymore. What surprised me is that you can consume walnuts as is without any roasting. Therefore, our after-dinner snack simply consisted of Washington wine, cheese and fresh walnuts.
A significant amount of the calories of most nuts and seeds are from fat; understandably so since it’s meant to create a brand-new tree. However, walnuts do contain a significant amount of polyunsaturated fats with up to 15% of these polyunsaturated fats in the form of the omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid. While humans can’t convert this ALA to the long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, ALA forms compounds that don’t cause inflammation or blood clots as readily thus potentially reducing cardiovascular risk and inflammatory conditions. Walnuts are also good sources of folic acid, vitamin B-6, vitamin E, copper, manganese and phosphorus.
Other than unique nutrition found in walnuts, they also offer something not often noticed but enhances the dining experience, tannins. Tannins are normally detected on the palate as bitterness but they provide a complementary function while eating as they help to cleanse the palate of fatty or oily textures in the mouth. That’s why you normally sip red wine between bites of your ribeye or prime rib. The tannins in red wine help to strip that fatty mouth feel each bite of beef leaves on your palate. The tannins in walnuts perform the same function whether it’s a rich dessert or fatty cheese. Plus, the perfect dish stimulates each of our five flavor sensations, sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.
Other than the sweetened variety that’s added to stir fried shrimp (aka honey walnut shrimp) at your local Chinese restaurant, I enjoy the candied variety where the walnuts are front and center:
Sweet and Savory Spiced Nuts
3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- Pinch of ground cloves
- 1 large egg white
- 2 cups walnut halves (1/2 lb.)
- 2 cups pecan halves (1/2 lb.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in middle. Lightly coat a sheet pan with non-stick spray.
Whisk together sugar, spices and salt in a small bowl. Whisk the egg white in a medium bowl until frothy, then stir in nuts. Add spice mixture and toss to coat (I sprinkle about
½ tablespoon at a time to make sure the nuts are evenly coated with the spice mixture).
Spread nuts mixture in one layer in sheet pan. Bake, stirring once or twice, until dry and well toasted, about 20 minutes. Loosen nuts from pan, then cool completely.
Nuts keep in an airtight container at room temperature for one week. Technically, a serving of nuts are about ¼ cup so this recipe makes about 16 servings but I consume a little more than ¼ cup when I serve this with parmesan gelato and red wine poached pears.
When we first visited Fête restaurant in Chinatown several years ago, we sampled their four dips which included a smokey eggplant dip, house made ricotta, a Tuscan white bean dip and their walnut tapenade served on Bread by Breadshop’s crostini with anchovy butter. Since then, that appetizer has been reduced to a trio of spreads but it still includes the walnut tapenade.
Tapenades traditionally refer to that savory French spread consisting of Niçoise olives, capers, garlic and anchovies ground to a coarse paste in a mortar and pestle. These days, a tapenade refers to any savory spread meant to enjoy on toasted bread before you indulge in your entrée. And nuts, especially walnuts make a great spread due to their fat and protein content with tannins to cleanse the palate between bites.
- 1 cup walnuts, toasted for 8-10 min in a 350-degree oven
- 2 tablespoons minced, oil-soaked sundried tomatoes
- 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan
- 2 cloves roasted garlic
- 1 tablespoon dried cilantro
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- ¼ to 1/2 cup olive or avocado oil
Toast the walnuts then set aside to cool. Place tomatoes, walnuts, Parmesan, parsley, garlic and salt in a pestle and mortar or food processor and grind into a chunky paste. Add oil and mix or blend till well combined. This will keep well for up to two weeks refrigerated.
After returning from Washington state with a box of fresh Oregon walnuts, we also purchased a bag of Diamond walnuts from Safeway and performed a blind taste test. Ms. S and I both agreed that the bagged walnuts had a crisper texture which was surprising as we both assumed they were farther out from harvest than the Oregon variety but we also both agreed that the fresh Oregon walnuts had a richer, deeper flavor profile. In my view, you can’t go wrong with either product!
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet” (nichibei.org/columns/gochiso-gourmet/).