Nuts have nourished man and beast since prehistoric times. Their importance is evident in the many metaphors we use to describe everything from human anatomy to our state of mind. Males are born with “nuts”; a problem can be “a hard nut to crack”; it could even drive us “nuts”.
If we had a real nut for every time we used the word, our nutrition scores would soar. Unfortunately for us, nuts are too often a culinary afterthought relegated to trail mix and cereal. Who would guess remnants of walnut shells turn up in Neolithic fire pits more often than animal bones?
Salad of beets, green beans, goat cheese with walnut oil dressing
Europeans get it. Walnuts in the shell are prominently displayed with produce in French markets. They stay fresh and tasty in their original packaging. We are more likely to see them like this when they are harvested in late November. I remember watching my Hungarian father crack open and pick out the walnut meat between sips of Tokay wine at the end of holiday meals. Our festive white tablecloth littered with walnut shells was the envy of any squirrel.
It turns out that that the ancient walnut is the one ingredient I can purchase as easily in suburban Chicago as in southwest France, more often as scuffed halves than in the shell. I’ve made a point of finding more uses for walnuts this summer in preparation for my tour in the Dordogne this September.
Penne pasta with red onions, chard and walnuts.
Once walnuts come onto your culinary radar, their addition to salads, casseroles. breads and desserts will quickly multiply. For starters, I've added links to favorite walnut recipes on my website, or you can add them to your existing repertoire. Simply chop, scatter or fold pieces into a finished dish. Drizzle on a little walnut oil for emphasis. Voila!
Here are some tips to get the best results with walnuts.
Look for unbroken walnut halves. It’s usually a sign of quality.
Toast shelled nuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes or until they are fragrant. Their aroma and texture are revived and will remain so even in storage. Walnuts purchased in the shell do not require roasting.
Store shelled walnuts tightly sealed in the freezer between uses to avoid their oil from becoming rancid. Keep all nut oils in the refrigerator between uses.
Add a drizzle of walnut oil to heighten the presence of walnuts in dressings, sauces and as a garnish.