Nuts & Seeds
There are two main types of almond, sweet and bitter. The bitter variety is not readily available and should be used in very small quantities. Sweet almonds tend to come from Spain or California; however those from Jordan are highly esteemed.
In Spain, almonds are used to make a white version of gazpacho served with grapes, as well as delicious milk drinks. Ground and flaked almonds are excellent in cakes, biscuits and desserts and can be used as part of a crumb coating for fish.
Buy in small amounts and store in an airtight container. They must be kept cool but dry.
Part of the beech and oak tree family, chestnuts are a winter nut, especially popular around Christmas time. Wild chestnut trees do still grow in Britain, mostly in southern England, although the majority of commercially grown chestnuts are from France and Italy. Chestnuts aren't the same as horse chestnuts (better known as conkers), even though they look pretty similar. The tree produces spiky green husks in autumn - burrs, which split open when ripe to reveal chestnuts inside. Chestnuts used for cooking with have a slightly tapered point, while conkers tend to be rounded all over.
Sweet chestnuts are believed to have originated in Spain and were brought to Britain by the Romans; hence they're also known as Spanish chestnuts. They're delicious eaten on their own, roasted over hot coals, or can be used in all sorts of delicious dishes, including the traditional stuffing for Christmas dinner. Chestnuts have a high starch content so in Europe they're often made into flour and used for cakes and fritters. In France they're preserved in sugar as marrons glaces. They're always cooked before eating, after which they develop a distinctive, sweet, nutty taste and floury texture. Their high level of tannic acid means they shouldn't be eaten raw.
Sold on street corners through winter, open-roasted warm chestnuts are sold in their shells making a healthy and affordable snack
Look for ones in their shell which feel heavy for their size and have a rich colour. Steer clear of any that are greyish or wrinkled. The shelf-life of these nuts is around 1-2 months. Cooked and shelled ones should be covered, refrigerated, and used within three to four days.
In the kitchen...
Chestnuts have higher starch content, and less oil than other nuts, lending a floury, less crunchy texture.
Used in both sweet and savoury dishes, they're usually boiled, roasted, steamed, pureed, or ground into flour. Remember to score the base of the shells before cooking, so that they don't split while cooking.
Boiled in their shells, either in milk or water, chestnuts remain moist and are suitable for pureeing - allow around 20 minutes cooking time. Aim to shell them while still hot - it's much easier. Keep chestnuts waiting to be shelled, immersed in liquid and covered in a lidded pan - this helps stop the shells from drying out and toughening.
After taking off the outer shell, there's a thinner, paper-like coating, which should also be removed. If all this seems too much like hard work, you can always buy vacuum-packed chestnuts or canned puree, which are ready to cook with.
The natural sweetness of whole, tender chestnuts work well with Brussels sprouts. Its richness also complements game dishes, especially when used as a stuffing. In sweet dishes, pureed sweetened chestnuts are a natural partner with chocolate. The nuts also work well with vanilla and cream - great for cake fillings.
Candied chestnuts, known as marrons glacÚs are a French speciality, traditionally enjoyed at Christmas.
Did you know...
Chestnuts have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years in the Mediterranean region. Greeks introduced the sweet chestnut tree to Europe, and the Romans brought it to England.
Hazelnuts are the fruit of the hazel tree, a member of the birch family. Their flavour varies a little according to the maturity of the nuts. At the beginning of autumn hazels have a sharp, milky taste that becomes sweeter as the nuts ripen. Hazelnuts are globe-shaped or oval, up to two centimetres (nearly one inch) long with a hard brown shell. They grow in most parts of Britain, but cobnuts (a type of wild hazelnut) are particular to Kent. Most of the world's commercially grown hazelnuts come from Turkey. They're used in savoury dishes including soups and sauces, such as romesco sauce. They're excellent in baking and can be ground, like almonds, for use in cakes and biscuits. As with most nuts they have an affinity with chocolate. They're also a key ingredient in praline.
In the kitchen
In general, hazelnuts taste best when toasted or roasted. They play a major role in European desserts, baking and confectionery and work well with chocolate, toffee or caramel, cream, meringue, orange and plums. Cake recipes requiring ground almonds can also be made with ground hazelnuts.
There are also many savoury uses. Sprinkle them over soups, salads, and steamed green vegetables. Try them in stuffings for meals of chicken, game birds or ham. They can be chopped and combined with melted butter to serve with fish and shellfish, especially trout, or used in Mediterranean sauces such as tarator and romesco. Blending roasted hazels with a little oil in a food processor produces a good alternative to peanut butter.
Cob nuts are a rounded variety of hazelnut with short husks. Filberts are a variety that tends to be longer and covered completely by the husks (although in the United States all cultivated hazelnuts are called filberts). Kentish cobs are actually filberts.
The brown skin of hazelnuts is extremely hard to remove when the nuts are raw. To deal with this, roast the nuts for 10 minutes at 180C/gas 4, then remove them from the oven, wrap them in a textured tea towel, and when they are cool enough to handle, rub the skins off using the tea towel.
Alternatively, if you don't want a toasted flavour, the nuts can be blanched in boiling water and cooled before rubbing off the skins. Remember that ground hazelnuts have a high fat content and should be used quickly once the packet is opened; buy them in small amounts only.
Macadamias are native to north eastern Australia, but also grown extensively in Hawaii.
The pale beige nut has an extraordinarily hard thick brown shell that can do more damaged to a nutcracker than the nutcracker can do to it, so macadamias tend to be sold already shelled.
As a pricey, luxury food, they are primarily eaten raw or salted and served as a cocktail snack, but their creamy, waxy texture is increasingly appreciated in cooking, especially sweet baking. Macadamias also produce high quality oils and nut butters.
When finely crushed macadamias are a good crumb coating for chicken and fish. They can be used in desserts and biscuits and match particularly well with caramel, white chocolate, pineapple and ice cream. Macadamias can also be used in place of pecans in pecan pie, and as a substitute for exotic candlenuts in Indonesian cooking.
Buy in small amounts and store in an airtight container, in the fridge if desired. They must be kept cool but dry
They are native to South America, yet their popularity has spread around the world. Peanuts are actually a member of the pea family and aren't true nuts, as they have to be dug out of the soil to be harvested. Also known as monkey nuts and groundnuts, the pods develop after the pollinated flower stalk has grown down into the soil, where the nuts develop. Peanut oil is used extensively in cooking and for making margarine. The nuts themselves are eaten salted and roasted as snacks or made into peanut butter. Whole or chopped peanuts are popular in Asian cusuine and give satay sauce its addictive quality. They're often served as a garnish on noodles and stir-fries. They're also good in baking and can be baked into cookies or pies. Chop the peeled nuts finely and add to salads, vegetable dishes, rice dishes, cakes and biscuits. If you plan to use peanuts in sweet dishes, be sure to buy raw nuts and not the roasted, salted variety.
Buy in small amounts and store in an airtight container. They must be kept cool but dry.
Native to the USA and parts of Mexico, pecans come from the hickory tree and rank as America's second favourite nut (after the peanut).
They look similar to walnuts, for which they can often be substituted, but pecans taste sweeter and have a longer, smoother kernel.
Their shells contain a high proportion of meat compared to other nuts but the pecans' exceptionally high oil content means they tend to stale quickly.
Pecan pie is more American than apple pie. These nuts make great additions to crumble mixtures, ice cream and anything with caramel.
Mix with chopped apple and hot thickened maple syrup for a delicious dessert sauce.
They can also be added to savoury salads and stuffings, and work especially well with dried fruit and regular or wild rice.
Buy in small amounts and store in an airtight container, in the fridge if desired. They must be kept cool but dry.
Although sometimes called pine nuts, the term kernel is more accurate for these small tear-shaped seeds of the Mediterranean stone pine, widely used in Italy, Greece and the Middle East.
They have a faint resin-like flavour and aroma, and taste rich and oily. They are at their best when toasted until browned and fragrant.
Italy is a leading producer but pine kernels are also grown in China, where they tend to be much larger - with a little practice you can clearly see the difference.
Toasted pine kernels are a lovely addition to stuffings, salads, pilafs, vegetable side dishes or mezze, and fruit salads. They go especially well with chicken and lamb, cream cheese, dried fruits and rice. In Italy they are used like almonds in rich dessert tarts, and for making pesto.
Buy in small amounts and store in an airtight container. They must be kept cool but dry.
One of the most popular seeds, nutty-flavoured sesame can be black, pearly beige or white. The black variety is used primarily in Indian and Oriental cooking.
Careful toasting brings out their delightful flavour and fragrance.
Sesame seeds are an attractive and useful sprinkle topping for bread and other baked goods, muesli, desserts and fruit salads, as well as Oriental dishes, especially when toasted.
Buy in small amounts and store in an airtight container. They must be kept cool but dry
Related to the pecan, this nut comes from the stone fruit of a tall deciduous tree which grows in warm areas. Major producers include United States, France, Italy, China, Turkey and Italy.
There are about 15 species of walnut and many varieties within these groups. Next to the almond, walnuts are the most popular nut in Europe. Walnuts have many varieties but the most popular, for its flavour, is the English walnut.
They are used in desserts, cakes and confectionery as well as in many savoury dishes such as soups, sauces, stews and salads including the well-known Waldorf salad. They are also pickled for serving with cold meats and cheeses - they go particularly well with blue cheese - or for adding to meaty stews. Walnut oil has a strong nutty flavour which is excellent when used on fish, steaks, pasta or salad. It's not suitable as a cooking oil.
Green walnuts are picked before the shell has formed. They're normally immersed in brine until they become dark green, before they're dried and pickled. They're traditionally served as an accompaniment to cheese or cold meats.
Half-ripe walnuts are often sold preserved in syrup.
Shelled, dried walnuts have a short life of around 2-3 months. Keep them dry in an airtight container inside the fridge or freezer to prolong freshness.
In the kitchen
The most common variety of walnuts used in Europe are the dried ripe ones. Still in their shell, they're sometimes served as a special course at the end of a meal, or with cheese.
Half or whole nuts are often used as a decoration for desserts, while chopped ones add texture and flavour to puddings, ices and an array of sweet dishes - pastry, biscuits, pies and more.
In savoury cooking, walnuts are often ground to make creamy soups, and are tasteful additions to sauces and stuffings - especially good when paired with poultry and oily fish.
Walnuts add crunch to salads, working well with carrots, apples, celery.
Walnut oil has a delicate flavour, often used in dressings, or to sprinkle over cooked pasta. A dash of walnut oil added to dishes which already contain walnuts accentuates their natural flavour.
Did you know
The Greeks and Romans believed that walnuts, and their resemblance to the human brain, were good for curing headaches
There are two sorts of almonds, the bitter almond and the sweet almond. Bitter almonds are used to make almond oil, which is used in many baking recipes to add an intense almond flavour. Ground, sweet almonds are the basis of sweets such as marzipan, nougat and macaroons. They're especially useful in baking and can be substituted for flour to create a dense, moist texture in cakes and biscuits. For the freshest flavour, grind your own almonds as you need them because they become stale quickly. Sweet almonds also appear in many savoury recipes - from toasted flaked almonds served with trout and brown butter to their role as a thickening agent in romesco sauce. They're often used in Indian cooking to thicken and add texture and flavour to dishes such as chicken korma.
Brazil nuts have an unusually tender, rich and mild flavour. The oil made from brazil nuts has a pleasant nutty flavour and can be used as a high-quality salad oil. Brazil nuts are the seeds of a large tree that grows up to 50 metres (160 feet) tall in the Amazon jungle and their shells are notoriously difficult to crack. Commercial supplies of Brazil nuts are still derived entirely from wild trees though there are concerns that they're being harvested too intensively. They're often used in baking and go well with chocolate, for example in chocolate brownies.
Cashew nuts grow dangling beneath a fleshy stalk known as the cashew pear. The 'pear' can be used for juices, syrups and liqueurs. Cashew nuts are eaten on their own as a snack or as an ingredient in various sweet and savoury dishes. Whole or chopped cashews provide crunch and substance to Asian stir-fries, noodle dishes and curries and they're a good match with chicken.
Coconuts have many roles in the kitchen where their milk, cream, oil and flesh are all in demand for savoury and sweet dishes. Coconut milk and cream is made from squeezing the flesh in water and used often in curries and spicy soups to 'cool' the heat of the dish. It's also delicious in sweets such as coconut rice pudding or coconut ice cream. The dried meat is known as 'copra'. Coconut oil can be made from fresh coconuts, and it is extensively used in making margarine, confectionery and bakery goods, and for frying. Coconut flesh can be used fresh, grated or desiccated in numerous sweet and savoury dishes.
Pistachios are known as the 'happy nut' in China because of the 'smile' appearance of its open shell. The open shell of the pistachio enables it to be roasted and salted while still in its shell, and that's how they're often sold and eaten. They're also found in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean pastries such as baklava and Asian sweets such as seera. Pistachios are a good source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, folate and protein.
Pine nuts are used a great deal in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. They have a very delicate taste and texture and are high in protein which makes them especially useful in a vegetarian diet. They can be eaten raw, when they have a soft texture and a sweet buttery flavour and are especially good in salads. They are delicious toasted as this brings out their flavour and adds a little extra crunch. They're probably best known for their use in pesto sauce.
Pumpkin seeds are greenish in colour, and can be eaten raw or cooked both in sweet and savoury dishes. Delicious roasted, or toasted and sprinkled with soya sauce while hot, and served on salads. They're rich in protein, iron, zinc and phosphorus. During the autumn, when pumpkins are in season, you can dry your own seeds for use in various dishes.
Sesame seeds are available in a variety of colours including browns, red, black, yellow and ivory. The darker seeds are said to have the most flavour. The oil is one of the most distinctive, fragrant and flavourful oils you can get, with a slightly sweet nutty flavour (enhanced by toasting). Europe has limited use of sesame seeds in baking, garnishing bread, biscuits and pastries. However, there is much more extensive use elsewhere in Asian, South American and African cooking, where sesame seeds are used in both sweet and savoury dishes. They go particularly well with chicken and other meats, in salads as both garnish and dressing, vegetables and stir-fries as well as adding a distinctive flavour to stir-fried and rice dishes. Ground sesame seeds are used to make tahini, a smooth paste used in Middle Eastern cooking.
Sunflower seeds are one of the most commonly available seeds. The sunflower plant belongs to the daisy family, and probably originated in North America. North American Indians cultivated sunflowers as long as 2,000 years ago. The seeds can be eaten whole, raw or cooked, added to breads and cakes, or sprinkled over salads or breakfast cereals. A good source of potassium and phosphorus, sunflower seeds also contain protein, iron and calcium.
Buying and storing
Most nuts can be bought either in the shell or shelled. Whole, flaked and ground nuts are widely available in supermarkets, health food stores and at many street markets. So too are nut butters, which can be added to soups and stews to thicken them. Some nuts are available fresh (or 'green') but most are sold dried. The majority are available year round, but there are some seasonal varieties (chestnuts and cobnuts, for instance). Nut oils are currently extremely popular in cooking; several types of nut are cultivated for their oil including walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts and almonds.
Nuts do go off, and shouldn't be kept for more than a few weeks or beyond their 'best before' or 'use-by' date. Buy them in small amounts, keep them in airtight containers in a cool, dry place away from the light. Because of their high fat content, nuts and seeds can benefit from storage in the fridge or freezer to help prevent them becoming rancid. Stale nuts will look shrivelled and have a rancid taste (they can also be dangerous to eat as they build up contaminants).
Nut allergy is an increasing problem in the UK, especially among children. Peanuts are the most common cause, but other nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts and cashew nuts, can affect people too. On rare occasions, all these nuts can cause anaphylaxis (a serious and rapid allergic reaction) in people who are sensitive. An immediate injection of adrenaline is a highly effective treatment.
Avoiding nuts is the most obvious thing to do if you're allergic to them, but this is often easier said than done. Since November 2005, food labelling rules require pre-packed food sold in the UK, and the rest of the European Union, to show clearly on the label if it contains nuts (or if one of its ingredients contains them). There could still be foods on the shelves that were produced before this date.
Manufacturers often use warnings such as 'may contain nuts' because they know that minute amounts of certain ingredients, especially nuts, can cause some people to have severe allergic reactions. Even where they make sure that nuts aren't deliberately added to a product, nuts may get into the product for different reasons. For example, the food might be produced on the same line, or in the same factory, as other foods containing nuts. Or the manufacturer may buy ingredients that aren't guaranteed to be nut-free.
Aflatoxins are toxins formed by moulds growing on various foods including edible nuts, particularly in the tropics and sub-tropics. There's evidence to suggest they may cause liver cancer. Regulations in the UK set limits for aflatoxins, but occasionally tests show these limits have been exceeded (in batches of peanuts, peanut butter and pistachios, for instance). Nevertheless, the levels of toxins found are generally low, and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) advises that there's no need for anyone to avoid eating these products and that nuts contain important nutrients and can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet.