For years, many Americans avoided eating almonds, walnuts, pecans and all the other tasty nuts we were crazy about. We were tempted, but nuts’ high-fat, high-calorie reputation made us disdain their charms. As it turns out, we were wrong. Now these dietary outcasts are earning accolades as the nutritional powerhouses they have always been. Nutrient-rich sources of energy, nuts are high in dietary fiber, plant protein, vitamin E (which may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s) and B vitamins, plus such minerals as calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper and potassium. As a bonus, nuts have zero cholesterol.
Nuts contain a host of heart-healthy oils — a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — that have earned them a place in the healthy fat category, along with other notables like olive oil and salmon. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the following package label as a qualified health claim for nuts: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
Ounce for ounce, nuts do contain a healthy amount of calories (about 160 to 180 calories an ounce), so the key is to eat a handful, not a whole can. Nuts, including almonds, walnuts and pecans, have been shown to lower blood cholesterol, and eating just five ounces of nuts per week has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by 30 to 50 percent. So you can still reap the health benefits and keep calories in check by eating an ounce a day, which is equal to a handful, or about 1/4 cup.
Remember to substitute nuts for less healthy fats in your daily diet. For example, substitute equal amounts of nut butter in place of butter, margarine, cream cheese or mayonnaise. (To make your own nut butter, simply process nuts in a food processor or electric blender — pulsing on and off at five-second intervals — until the nuts turn into a buttery paste.) Or, use an equal amount of chopped nuts in place of cheese on a salad, sandwich, vegetables or a casserole dish.
Once you buy nuts, it’s important to preserve their fresh flavor. Once they turn rancid, nuts become bitter and oily tasting. (If those you’ve just bought smell “off,” take them back. Life is too short for badly flavored nuts.) Raw, unshelled nuts store for up to a year when kept in a cool, dry place, or even longer when stored in an airtight container in the freezer. You can store shelled nuts in an airtight container for up to six months in the refrigerator or up to a year in the freezer. If you store them in a cool, dry place at room temperature, they’ll taste fine for up to four months.
Whether you choose nuts shelled or in the shell; raw or roasted; salted or plain; or whole, chopped or slivered, knowing how to use them beyond just munching a handful may push your culinary limits. Here’s help cracking the case on nut characteristics and a variety of healthy uses.
Almonds have a milky-smooth, delicate flavor, with a sweet aftertaste. They’re among the most versatile of all tree nuts and are a tasty addition to many dishes: salads, soups, fruit dishes, stir-fries and desserts. Almonds pair well with delicate herbs, such as chives, parsley or tarragon, and spices like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
Cashews are buttery-textured, flavorful nuts that work well with chocolate, stir-fries or tossed into vegetable, fruit or main-dish salads. They also work well with seafood or mushrooms, whipped into a creamy sauce or ground into nut butter. Try using ground cashews in a white chocolate sauce as a dip for fresh fruit. They pair well with garlic, hot chiles, fennel, curry powder and ginger.
Filberts (hazelnuts) are sweet, rich and wonderfully mild. These grape-size nuts are a natural for baked goods, pastries and candies and are equally delicious chopped into fruit salads, stuffings and dressings, or sprinkled over soups such as split pea, lentil or cream of mushroom. Sprinkle over poached pears, or serve with soft cheeses like Brie. Filberts pair well with herbs like rosemary, sage, savory, dill and thyme, as well as spices used in baking.
Macadamias have a creamy, rich texture and sweet, delicate taste that lends itself well to baked goods and desserts. Blend them into a fresh fruit and yogurt smoothie made from cantaloupe, banana and mango. Or, try blending with watermelon and strawberries for an especially tasty drink. Macadamias pair well with delicate herbs like tarragon, chervil and fennel, as well as spices like ginger and cinnamon.
Pistachios have a delicate, subtle flavor that combines well with both sweet and savory dishes. Add chopped nuts to your favorite muffin recipes, or toss roasted nuts with popcorn for a delicious snack. Turn into a nut butter and spread on whole-grain breads, or use the nut butter as a spread for fresh fruits or vegetables like carrots, cucumbers and celery.
Pecans have a distinctively rich, sweet flavor with a tender crunch that enhances a multitude of foods — from bakery, confectionery and dairy foods to salads, vegetables and main dishes. Finely chop pecans for a tasty coating for tofu, chicken, fish or pork. Simply dip the food item in an egg wash or brush with honey first, then roll in crushed pecans to coat. Sprinkle chopped pecans over potato and leek soup, or sauté in butter for a delicious topping for baked potatoes or vegetable dishes. Pecans pair well with herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, parsley and rosemary, as well as spices used in baking.
Walnuts are among the heartiest and most flavorful of nuts. They have a somewhat earthy taste that goes well in a variety of sweet and savory dishes, as well as baked goods and desserts. The English walnut is by far the most widely available and versatile, lending itself to a variety of recipes and foods. Walnuts are a great topper for any pasta-type dish and a tasty accompaniment to cheese or as an ingredient in pesto. Walnuts go well with hearty herbs like basil, sage, thyme and oregano, as well as spices used in baking.
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Herbs for Health. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her photographer husband, Rick Wetherbee.
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Serve this slightly sweet-and-sour stir-fry over rice noodles, fettuccini or brown rice for a complete meal.
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