Most commonly associated with Christmas, nuts are a favourite for the festive season. However, they are a welcome addition to a number of dishes, both sweet and savoury. In their wet (fresh) or dry forms, most nuts are in fact available all year round through wholesalers at New Covent Garden Market. Most are ready to use, shelled and blanched and ready to go, making them a useful and versatile option for chefs.
With their many health benefits and varying degrees of flavours, from sweet to savoury, creamy and buttery, nuts are a welcome addition to a great number of dishes.
According to Richard Harris of wholesaler IA Harris: "Availability and price very much depends on the season and weather patterns and harvests can vary widely from year to year. They are a traditional product that we don't use enough of - nuts can transform a dish due to their strong flavour and texture."
Continuing our tutored tasting series, several chefs had the opportunity to try a variety of nuts and discuss their flavour profiles and ideas for dishes, organised by IA Harris at New Covent Garden Market. Here Richard Harris guides us through some popular varieties.
Properties Renowned health properties and unique as most of the fat is polyunsaturated.
Usage For use in cakes, dressings and savoury dishes. Dried and pickled (black) walnuts for serving with cold meats and cheeses.
Notes California is the largest producer.
Properties Slim, oblong nuts, ranging from pale, creamy yellow to dark green. Usage Pistachios are a good meat accompaniment and are also often used in ice-cream and other desserts.
Notes They are grown in clusters, and are cultivated in the Middle East, some Mediterranean countries and California.
Properties Early season husks are green and the kernels particularly juicy. Later harvests produce brown shells and husks and the full flavour of the kernel has developed.
Usage Roasting enhances the flavour of cobnuts and a few ounces coarsely ground lend a nutty tang to dishes savoury or sweet.
Notes More cobnuts are grown in Kent than anywhere else.
Properties High starch and water content but low protein and fat levels.
Usage Work well in soups, stuffings, stews and sauces.
Notes Excellent store cupboard ingredient available fresh, ground, dried, pureed or vacuum-packed.
Properties Cashew nuts grow dangling beneath a fleshy stalk known as the cashew pear. The ‘pear' can be used for juices, syrups and liqueurs.
Usage Whole or chopped cashews provide crunch and substance to Asian stir-fries, noodle dishes and curries.
Notes The cashew is a close relative of mangos, pistachios, poison ivy and poison oak.
Properties The edible seeds of pine trees, pine nuts have a very delicate taste and texture and are high in protein.
Usage Delicious toasted as this brings out their flavour and adds a little extra crunch.
Notes Pine nuts are expensive due to the length of time it takes for a pine tree to produce the seeds. It takes anywhere from 15 to 25 years for pine trees to begin producing the seeds and up to triple that time for them to reach top production.
Properties Globe-shaped or oval nuts up to 2cm long.
Usage Savoury dishes including soups and sauces, such as romesco sauce. Can be ground for use in cakes and biscuits.
Notes Key ingredient in praline.
Properties The delicately flavoured almond is available throughout the year but at their freshest in mid-summer. Usage Ground sweet almonds are useful in baking and can be substituted for flour. They are also used in savoury dishes to add texture and flavour. Dishes described as "amandine" are served with whole or split blanched almonds - trout amandine being a classic.
Notes Bitter almonds are used to make almond oil, which is used in many baking recipes to add an intense almond flavour. Sweet almonds are among the most commonly used nuts.
What the chefs said
Nicola Aylward, food development manager,The Faucet Inn group "Cobnuts have a beautiful soft texture with an earthy creamy taste. I would make a chocolate and cobnut torte by mixing the purée with melted chocolate.
"Dry walnuts have a firm crunch and bitterness from the skin. The skins of wet walnuts have a bitterness that is overpowering at first, but with sweet insides it is worth experimenting with, even worth peeling them!
Fresh wet chestnuts need a lot of preparation too. You can steam or poach them but do peel off the bitter skin. Combine well in butter with cabbage, sprouts etc. They are great in stuffing with creams for that classic Christmas flavour"
Duncan Cruickshanks, executive chef, the Hospital Club, London "Hazelnuts give you a great crunch, more than a cobnut and have a lasting flavour. You can create texture in sweet dishes like biscotti or brittle crushed with cream or savoury dishes by adding hazelnuts to citrus fruits or a blue cheese dressing.
"Pine nuts don't seem to have much flavour when you first bite them, but they are really long in taste and actually end up being quite an overpowering flavour. They are very oily - watch what you use them with! As the flavour goes a long way, either use them with bland vegetables that need the flavour (eg, marrow or squash) or strong flavour matches (eg, basil). A little amount of pine nut goes a long way.
"The pistachio has a beautiful bright green colour and are best used simply, don't add too many flavours - make the pistachio the star.
Nikki Low, head chef, the Warrington, Maida Vale, London W9 "Raw almonds are firm with a slightly chewy aniseed note when raw. They are best blanched which is easily done by placing them in boiling water, removing them from the heat and leaving to stand for five minutes before peeling.
"Cashew nuts have a natural sweetness with a crumbly texture. They go well with chicken, crushed coarsely as a crust on a chicken breast or mix with butter and anchovies and pack on the back of a saddle of lamb."
http://www.iaharris.co.uk" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">IA Harris and Son020 7622 7176