Nutty Nuances – US Food Trends

07 October 2008
Nutty Nuances – US Food Trends

Tree nuts and peanuts bring flavor and texture to savory restaurant fare.

This article first appeared in the 1 October 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

In the savory kitchen, however, nuts and peanuts are used sporadically and often with discretion; they play the role of accents rather than taking the lead.

"I do use nuts," says Jennie Lorenzo, executive chef at Fifth Floor in San Francisco. "But it's not all the time."

For chefs such as Lorenzo, nuts are at their best when they add nuance to a dish. When puréed, they subtly thicken sauces. When mixed into meatballs, they add texture. When candied, they impart a sweet crunch.

"It all goes back to what really completes the dish," Lorenzo says.

Nut Favoritism

At Fifth Floor, which serves dishes inspired loosely by Gascony in southwestern France, Lorenzo pairs pine nuts with slow-roasted salmon and combines pistachios with capers for a foie-gras preparation. But almonds are what she turns to most often. "It's just the flavor; they're more versatile," she says.

She likes to use both mature and young almonds for dishes that play with sweet and savory flavors. For a squab preparation, she coats the skin of the breast with crushed sugared almonds and then sears the breast, allowing the sugar to caramelize and the nuts to toast. When immature green almonds are available in the spring, she tosses the tender, sweet specimens with a vinaigrette to accompany pan-seared monkfish.

Nuts mingle in distinctive meatball preparations served at Chef-owner Hoss Zaré's Persian-influenced restaurant Zaré at Fly Trap, also in San Francisco.

"When you have a meatball and a nut, it makes the inside crunchy and gives it extra flavor," Zaré says.

Zaré's meatballs vary, from wild-salmon-and-pistachio balls and beef-and-hazelnut balls to ground-turkey-and-cashew balls. Nuts are selected to complement the protein. Pine nuts, walnuts and hazelnuts may overpower the delicate salmon-ball mixture, Zaré says. But beef-based meatballs, he explains, can stand up to stronger-flavored nuts.

His favorite nut for meatballs, though, is the pistachio, which he calls the wild card. "It goes with everything," he insists.

In addition to the pistachios, herbs and spices flavor the meatballs, while breadcrumbs provide structure. Although the protein-and-nut combinations change, the sauce, comprising pomegranate, honey, harissa, red wine and whole-grain mustard, stays the same; it glazes the balls while they roast.

Larry London uses nuts year-round but favors them particularly in the fall harvest season. "They just feel right for this time of year," says the chef and partner, with Chef Ryan Schroeder, of Big Tomatoes, which has locations in Green Bay and Neenah, Wis.

At the Green Bay location, London uses toasted walnuts to add crunch and subtle flavor to an Israeli couscous salad with shaved fennel, green apple and dried cranberries. To maintain the crunchy texture of the walnuts, the salad's components are tossed to order with apple-cider dressing and then molded on the plate with a ring mold and garnished with caramelized-apple wedges and shavings of Parmesan or grana cheese.


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Shell Games

Some economical choices result in a better finished product. At One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, Executive Chef Mark Dommen started to buy smaller, less costly almonds after his nut purveyor sent samples.

He finds that using these smaller specimens, which are blanched and peeled in the restaurant, allows him to use more whole nuts on a salad.

"I prefer to keep them as whole as possible, just so you can recognize it," Dommen says. "You get that full crunch factor out of the nut."

An exception to this whole-nut preference is made when he prepares nut emulsions or vinaigrettes. For walnut purée, he simmers walnuts in vegetable stock, swirls in a dollop of butter, purées the substance and then emulsifies it with walnut oil. It's heated to order and served as a sauce alongside fish.

Keeping food costs down while serving 1,300 meals a day isn't always easy, acknowledges Joe Savino, executive chef for the New York City office of law firm Simpson, Thatcher & Bartlett (an account of Compass Group North America subsidiary Flik International).

"[With] the price of food now, we're always looking for economical options," he says.

Borrowing inspiration from Mexican mole, he mixes chile powder, cumin, coriander and paprika into peanut butter and adds the blend to a braise of pork shoulder, onions, garlic, chipotle peppers and tomatoes. Grated unsweetened chocolate is added to finish. To balance the richness of the pork and peanuts, Savino garnishes the chile with a bright salsa made with coarsely chopped peanuts, red onion, cilantro, lime juice and tomatillos.

The dish also makes use of Savino's house-ground peanut butter, a favorite spread at the deli counter. Peanut-butter sandwiches, Savino explains, "are more popular than you would think, even with corporate lawyers."

Novelty Nuts (and Peanuts)

Although not typically the marquee item in a dish, nuts often stand out. At Big Tomatoes in Green Bay, Wis., candied walnuts with Gorgonzola cheese and greens compose the restaurant's most popular salad. Here's a look at more nutty intrigue:

Fried pine nuts garnish warm, fennel-stuffed mackerel served with raw asparagus, currants and red-pepper emulsion at Savarona in New York City.
Kuku Sabzi, a Persian frittata made with herbs, walnuts and barberries, is served during Persian New Year at Lala Rokh in Boston.
Spicy walnuts are paired with roasted beets, orange confit and goat cheese at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Calif.
Honeyed peanuts garnish an entrée of seared yellowfin tuna with cabbage slaw, pineapple and sriracha-citrus emulsion at The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick, N.J.
Warm, unshelled peanuts in a bag are offered on the bar menu at newly opened Pub & Kitchen in Philadelphia.

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