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Wondrous Walnuts
By Joyce Goldstein

Most people think of walnuts primarily in connection with sweets. After all, you usually find nuts in the same supermarket aisle as the baking ingredients—adjacent to the flour, sugar and dried fruits. And they do make a great addition to desserts. I love walnut cookies, tarts and cakes. However, there is no reason to pigeonhole walnuts into the baked goods category.

As you'll see with the following recipes, walnuts are a wonderful addition to salads and stews, and can be used to make a sauce for fish, poultry, cooked vegetables—even pasta. In other words, they are incredibly versatile; providing interesting texture and a pleasing bite that plays off sweet and sour flavors beautifully.

Walnuts are believed to have originated in Asia. They are especially prized in the Mediterranean and Balkan countries of Greece and Turkey, as well as France and parts of Italy. The famous pesto of Liguria is often made with walnuts instead of pine nuts. A classic Persian dish, fesenjan, braises duck in a fragrant sauce of walnuts and pomegranate, but the sauce is also excellent with chicken.

It's interesting that many Mediterranean countries pair mushrooms and nuts. In Italy hazelnuts are the complement for assorted mushrooms. In Spain almonds are often part of the duet. In my Greek-inspired Mushroom, Walnut and Spinach Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette, walnuts are combined with spinach in a spicy mustard vinaigrette.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

Walnuts and walnut oil contain high levels of polyunsaturated fats. These fats are healthy because they help to decrease "bad", LDL cholesterol levels, without affecting the HDL or "good" cholesterol levels. Walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are nine percent protein. They are also high in fiber. The Mediterranean diet pyramid places nuts in a category with beans and legumes and recommends daily consumption from this group. Granted, walnuts are not low in calories, but a small serving goes a long way. A few tablespoons are all that it takes to make a dish more interesting and fun to eat.

Shopping and Storage Tips

When shopping for shelled walnuts, try to buy walnut halves. The larger the pieces the better control you will have over their use in a recipe. Coarsely chopped walnut pieces are often too small to pick up on a fork, a factor that is important when adding them to salads. If you buy walnuts in the shell, as a treat you may heat them in the shell in a low oven (about 250 F until fragrant) and serve them with fruit and cheese.

Nuts can become rancid if kept in the pantry for too long. I always store walnuts in the freezer for up to a year, so there is no fear of them going bad. They may also be kept in the refrigerator. Just keep them away from heat even if you plan to use them quickly.

Before using walnuts in a recipe, especially if they have been frozen or refrigerated, I always spread them on a baking sheet and toast them in a 350F oven for about 10 minutes, until I can smell them. The toasting revitalizes the dormant nut oils, releases the nuts' wonderful aroma and gives them extra crunch.

Try Joyce's winning walnut recipes:

Persian Style Spinach with Mint and Walnuts
Halibut with Russian Walnut and Coriander Sauce
Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes and Broccoli
Mushroom, Walnut and Spinach Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette

About Joyce Goldstein

Joyce Goldstein is a consultant to the restaurant and food industries. For 12 years she was chef/owner of the ground- breaking, award-winning Mediterranean restaurant SQUARE ONE in San Francisco. In addition, she taught cooking for 18 years. Joyce is the author of many cookbooks, including Back to Square One: Old World Food in a New World Kitchen, winner of both the Julia Child and James Beard Awards for Best General Cookbook of 1992 and Cucina Ebraica, Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen. Two more books on Mediterranean Jewish cooking are in the works.

 

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