For better stuffing and pie, get cracking
A Good Appetite: Recipes for holiday side dishes featuring nuts. Recipes: Lemony Couscous and Pecan Dressing with Parsley and Garlic, Pomegranate-Orange Relish with Walnuts, and Chocolate Chestnut Tart With Rum Whipped Cream
The New York Times
After my Uncle Sheldon moved to Dallas, he returned to Brooklyn for a visit flaunting a bolo tie, a splashy pair of cowboy boots and a nascent drawl.
But even more exotic was his suitcase filled with pecans harvested from the tree in his yard. He cracked a handful and passed them around. The kernels were buttery and sweet with a crisp bite, far better than the usual supermarket specimens.
"Now, these are what Texans call puh-cahns," Uncle Shel said, "not pee-cans."
In that moment, as I mentally adjusted my pronunciation, I became aware that freshly picked nuts — pecans, walnuts, almonds and others — are a wonderful delicacy. With their availability all year-round, it's easy to forget that nuts technically have a season. They are harvested in the fall and are traditionally eaten throughout the holiday season, stuffed into Thanksgiving turkeys, baked into pies or just cracked and snacked on while you sit around a blazing fire.
These days, however, most of the nuts we crunch in autumn were actually harvested the autumn before, said Bentzy Klein, a nut broker in New York. That's because it can take three weeks or longer for them to get to market, according to Klein. Which means nuts harvested in mid-November (particularly pecans) often won't hit the stores until just before (or after) Christmas, possibly in time for yuletide nut balls but too late for Thanksgivings pies.
Yet every nut-industry expert I interviewed maintained that, as long as nuts are stored in the shell in a cool, dark place, and then cracked and used as needed, they can last for a year. In fact, nut freshness, Klein said, has less to do with when they're picked than with when they're shelled. Which means that buying in-shell nuts and cracking them yourself is the simplest road to nut nirvana. Of course, fewer and fewer people are willing to hammer through a mountain of nuts to make enough for a couple of pies. According to the California Walnut Board, only 4 percent of the walnuts sold in the United States are in the shell. Klein said that this percentage has been shrinking over the years, for all varieties of nuts.
In the interest of both science and nostalgia, I bought a bag of in-shell pecans and spent a messy 20 minutes cracking and eating about half of them, just to see if I still thought they were better than preshelled nuts. They were better, a lot better — sweeter, richer and mellower, although maybe a tad less transcendent than my memory of Uncle Shel's haul.
But would I crack enough to whip up a dressing of couscous with pecans, parsley and loads of scallions? Or would I buy in-shell walnuts to make an orange-walnut-pomegranate relish? Alas, probably not.
As Polly Owen, the manager of the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board, said, "People just don't like to sit around and crack nuts anymore, it's no longer a popular pastime, and it's not very practical."
In most cases, it's not possible to find out when nuts were shelled. Small artisanal nut purveyors might tout that they are selling new-crop nuts very recently shelled. If you see them, grab them. I know I will.
And those plastic bags of nuts stacked on the shelves of the local supermarket? They are pushing their luck, in terms of freshness. Experts say shelled whole nuts can last for a few weeks to a month or so if stored at room temperature, although less if they have been chopped (which exposes more of the nuts to air, encouraging rancidity). Toasted nuts are even more perishable than raw nuts, Klein said.
Vacuum-sealed cans are a more reliable option. And looking for a store with a high turnover helps. If you can taste before you buy, do so. What you want is sweet and mellow, with a clean flavor and no off or bitter flavors (bitterness is often a sign of a mild rancidity).
Ever since learning all of this, I've been buying small quantities of nuts and using them immediately instead of stockpiling them in the pantry for last-minute brownie emergencies. If you've got the fridge or freezer space, they'll last for months in the refrigerator and up to a year in the freezer.
Then toast them just before using.
There is one nut that you can more easily find in the shell than out of it, although I wish it were the other way around: chestnuts. The traditional method is to score them with an X and then to toast them (in an oven or over an open fire) until the skin curls back around the X, and then to peel them while they're still warm.
Our Clark family method, pioneered by my father, uses a microwave oven. Working with about five chestnuts at a time, my dad slits each one almost all the way around its circumference, leaving the shell connected in one spot. Then he lays the nuts on a plate and microwaves them on high power for 40 seconds. The shells pop open like steamed clams. He wets his fingers in cold water and pulls off the shells, and the skins inside, before the chestnuts have a chance to cool.
Of course, roasted, peeled chestnuts are also available in jars and cans, especially around the holiday season, when they're pulled out of supermarket obscurity and placed front and center next to the cans of cranberry sauce and bags of stuffing mix.
I love to use those to make a creamy, rum-infused, chocolate-crusted chestnut tart, and they aren't at all bad in stuffing.
As for the rest of that bag of in-shell pecans? Perhaps, if we ever get around to lighting a fire, I'll break out the cracker. And then go nuts.
LEMONY COUSCOUS AND PECAN DRESSING WITH PARSLEY AND GARLIC
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1 ¼ cups pecan halves
2 ½ cups couscous, preferably whole wheat
1 ¼ teaspoons fine sea salt, plus more to taste
½ cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup finely chopped scallions, white and green parts
1 fat garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon Turkish red pepper or Aleppo pepper
1 ¼ cups chopped parsley
4 large eggs
1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread pecans on a baking pan in one layer and toast until fragrant, about 10 minutes. Let cool and chop coarsely. Turn the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix the couscous with 2 ½ cups boiling water and ¼ teaspoon sea salt. Cover and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in 3 tablespoons olive oil and fluff with a fork.
3. Stir the lemon zest, lemon juice, scallions, garlic, red pepper and remaining teaspoon salt together in a bowl and let stand for 2 minutes. Add the remaining ½ cup olive oil.
4. Stir the parsley, the nuts and the lemon-and-oil mixture into the couscous until combined.
5. Lightly beat the eggs and mix well with the couscous mixture. Spoon into a 2-quart gratin dish and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.
POMEGRANATE-ORANGE RELISH WITH WALNUTS
Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
2 cups walnuts
2 seedless unpeeled oranges, preferably organic, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 cups pomegranate seeds
¼ cup chopped mint leaves
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Spread walnuts on a baking pan in one layer and toast until fragrant, about 10 minutes.
2. In a food processor, pulse together the oranges, sugar and pepper and a generous pinch of salt until chunky. Add the walnuts and pulse a few times until the relish comes together. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the pomegranate seeds and mint.
CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT TART WITH RUM WHIPPED CREAM
Time: 1 ½ hours, plus 3 hours 20 minutes' refrigeration, and additional cooling
Yield: 8 servings
For the dough:
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough
½ cup confectioners' sugar
¼ cup unsweetened Dutch processed cocoa powder
Fine sea salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the filling:
1 pound or a 14.8-ounce jar roasted, peeled chestnuts
1 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Fine sea salt
1 vanilla bean, split
For the whipped cream:
¾ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons rum, to taste
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, for shaving
1. Prepare the dough: in the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour, confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder and a pinch of salt. Pulse in the butter, egg yolk and vanilla until dough just comes together. Form into a disk. Wrap with plastic wrap and chill at least 1 hour or overnight.
2. When you are ready to bake the crust, heat the oven to 325 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into an 11-inch circle. Press into a 9-inch tart pan and trim the edges. Prick the bottom of the dough all over with a fork; chill for 20 minutes or until firm. Cover the dough with a sheet of aluminum foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until pastry is dry and firm, about 15 minutes longer. Cool completely.
3. Make the filling: in a saucepan over medium heat, combine the chestnuts, milk, cream, sugar and a pinch of salt. Use the tip of a knife to scrape the vanilla seeds into the pot and then drop in the pod. Simmer until chestnuts are very soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool. Discard vanilla pod.
4. Purée the filling in a food processor until very smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape into the tart shell and smooth the top.
5. Make the whipped cream: whip the cream and confectioners' sugar until thickened. Whip in the rum. Spread the whipped cream over the chestnut filling. Using a vegetable peeler, shave chocolate curls over the top. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.
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