When it comes to cooking and baking, nuts can be more of an afterthought, like sprinkling peanuts on pad thai or mixing walnuts in a brownie batter to add some crunch while you munch. Unless you’re having a dinner party for small animals, nuts will never be a main course, but there’s a lot more you can do with them than people realize. To amp up the flavor in any dish, people first reach for spices, naturally. You can also do the same thing with nuts and use them in a variety of ways to add interesting flavors to any dish.
Flavorful oils and butters
Robert Kennon, chef de cuisine at Sweet Basil in Vail Village, said when using nuts consider the flavor profiles of each one and how well they might pair with a certain food.
“Chestnuts go really well with apples and creamy things,” Kennon said. “Almonds go well with bacon, oranges and pears. Walnuts go well with salads, fruit and even prosciutto. Macadamia nuts are best with fish.”
Kennon said a great resource to consult about nuts is “The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs” written by Karen Page. Kennon uses it to help him come up with new and unusual ways to use nuts. Right now Sweet Basil features a Muscovy duck breast on its menu, made with toasted walnut butter. Kennon said making walnut butter is relatively easy: Combine walnuts, walnut oil (which refines the flavor more) and then add a little bit of water, honey and salt. You can also do-it-yourself with walnut oil.
“One reason I don’t use a lot of nut oils is because they’re pretty expensive,” Kennon said. “It’s cheaper to take a neutral oil and make your own nut oil.”
Kennon said for a nut oil, roast the nuts first so they’re pretty hard. Then chop them up using a food processor and add pure olive oil or vegetable oil. In a pan, bring the chopped nuts and oil to a simmer, then turn it off and let it sit in a warm place overnight. The next day use a cheesecloth or coffee filter to strain the nuts and extract the oil.
“When making oils, you want your ratios to be one-to-one, one part oil and one part nuts,” Kennon said. “This way you incorporate the most flavor.”
When using nut oils, the one thing to be mindful of is their smoke point, the temperature at which an oil starts to break down. Most nut oils have a low smoke point and aren’t typically used as a cooking oil, but they can be used as a finishing oil to add flavor.
Make your own at home
Eagle-vail resident Annie Richards prepares mostly raw food dishes and is always on the lookout for imaginative ways to use nuts. Richards said the simplest thing someone can do to increase the nuts in their diet to get the health benefits is make their own almond milk. Richards said the almond milk available at the grocery store isn’t raw but pasteurized, which cuts down on its nutrient content.
To make almond milk, first soak the almonds in water at least overnight, or 48 to 72 hours for best results. This causes the almonds to sprout and activates the enzymes that make them come alive, Richards said. Then add one cup of almonds and four cups of water to a blender. Depending on how sweet you like it, add one to three dates. You can also add vanilla or cinnamon for flavor.
After blending, use a cheesecloth or a nut bag to strain out the pulp, leaving you with the milk. Almond milk stays fresh in the refrigerator for about five days. Richards said you can even make chocolate almond milk by simply adding cocoa powder.
Richards uses a lot of nut oils as well and said ones that are cold-pressed is best for your health.
“‘Unrefined’ is the key word on the label,” Richards said. “(Refined) is not necessarily bad, but if you really want to live your best life, feel better, look better, and get younger; I call it youth-ing as opposed to aging — use (unrefined oils).”
To crack open new ways to use nuts, try going beyond the toss ’em on top style.
“Chefs recently are trying to think outside the box,” Kennon said. “Instead of using a nut in a traditional way they’re trying a ton of cool ways to incorporate it … You don’t even see it as a nut, but when you bite into it you know it’s a nut flavor.”
Kennon said due to nut allergies, restaurants can be limited to only using them in a few dishes. People who cook at home have the freedom to go nuts and experiment.
“Have fun with it. Don’t be scared to use nuts in any type of way,” Kennon said.