Nuts and seeds

Try them in drinks and sauces

March 8, 2011

American cooks seldom realize the true potential of nuts and seeds. Sure, we love our popcorn, our mixed nuts, our poppy-seed muffins. And sometimes we remember that these little kernels of goodness are high in protein, minerals, and healthful fats.

But beyond peanut butter in our sandwiches and tahini in our hummus, we generally ignore this great category of ingredients.

The rest of the world, however, is paying attention. Here’s a roundup of eight delicious ways from around the globe to get the most from nuts and seeds.

  1. Drinks. Common throughout Mexico and Central America, horchata is a deliciously creamy concoction. Typically made from a base of rice, sugar, and cinnamon, horchata acquires its rich mouthfeel from the addition of ground almonds and native seeds ranging from sesame to melon. Middle Eastern and South Asian cooking feature similar beverages, scented with aromatics ranging from orange blossom and rosewater (the Middle East) to saffron and cardamom (India).
  2. Nuts are a terrific ingredient.
    Milks. Vegan chef Tal Ronnen sighs when I ask him about substituting soy milk for traditional dairy milk. “It tastes very beany, and it doesn’t have a lot of fat,” he says of soy milk. “If you try to reduce it, it evaporates.” Ronnen instead favors a homemade cashew cream, taking advantage of the raw nuts’ high fat content and neutral flavor to make deliciously creamy soups, sauces, and desserts. (There’s more about using cashew cream over on Tal Ronnen’s website.)
  3. Dukkah. Sure, nuts and seeds can be great snacks on their own. But this Egyptian dish takes it a step further, blending chopped roasted nuts (hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios) and seeds (sesame) along with a few whole spices (coriander, cumin). It’s ridiculously addictive dredged up with oil-dipped flatbread, as is traditional, or it can be used to coat fish or meats before grilling.
  4. Boiled peanuts. Those who grew up in the American South (or, for that matter, China, Africa, or Southeast Asia) don’t need to be told about the snacking potential of boiled peanuts. Young raw peanuts taste more like the legumes they truly are, and when simmered in heavily salted water, they become soft, savory, and totally addictive.
  5. Mole. Mexican mole sauce is usually thought of as a mix of chiles and chocolate, its most striking ingredients. But while mole recipes vary widely, many get their depth from ground sesame seeds, peanuts, and, in the case of the green mole known as pipían, pumpkin seeds. The seeds add body as well as richness, so that sauces thicken to coat your enchiladas.
  6. Romesco. This Spanish sauce is traditionally enjoyed with grilled spring onions during a harvest festival, but in our house it’s been known to grace everything from potatoes to asparagus to quiche (hello, Spanish brunch!). Almonds or hazelnuts (or sometimes both) are toasted and ground with breadcrumbs, roasted garlic and tomatoes, dried chiles, wine, vinegar, and a healthy Iberian dose of olive oil to create a sauce of gorgeous depth and complexity.
  7. Picada. Like romesco, picada hails from Spain’s Catalan region, but comes from an older, Moorish-influenced recipe. This base of nuts, bread, and oil is finely ground (these days a food processor can replace the traditional mortar and pestle), then used to build and thicken sauces, much like a roux but with a toasted, nutty depth.
  8. Khoresh. Najmieh Batmanglij, who has written extensively about the food of the Silk Road, found nut-based dishes from India to Italy. Batmanglij’s favorite is fesenjan khoresh, an adaptation from Persian cuisine of a sweet-sour, nut-based meat stew. Batmanglij said her mother deemed it “the best and most balanced” of dishes, combining rich walnuts with tart pomegranate. In addition to walnuts, Batmanglij says you see dishes in her native Persian cooking thickened with everything from almonds to pistachios to hazelnuts.

Deena Prichep is a food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She blogs at Mostly Foodstuffs.

Related recipe: Cashew Cream; recipe: Pomegranate Khoresh with Chicken

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