Thursday, September 28, 2006

All about Walnuts


I like foods that add a touch of luxury, where a little goes a long way. I'm thinking of things like caviar, smoked fish, truffles, whipped cream, chocolate. Nuts fall into that category for me too, maybe it's their association with the holidays or with desserts like cakes and cookies. Or maybe it's because they are so rich.

Walnuts have a richness due to their fat content. They have an inherent sweetness but also a slight bitterness. That bitterness is actually what complements so many foods. The flavor of walnuts is more mellow and buttery when toasted which is great for baked goods and desserts. But when it comes to strong foods like beef, bitter greens, cheese and herbs like basil, un-toasted walnuts add another more complex dimension. If you've made pesto you might have noticed that most pesto recipes call for un-toasted nuts, so clearly I'm not the first to realize this.

In experimenting with different kinds of nuts, I have found walnuts to be the most versatile of all due to their buttery, rich, sweet and bitter flavors. I also found that lemon almost always complements walnuts, toasted or not. The possibilities are endless, salad topped with walnuts and tossed with a lemon dressing, lemon tea cake with walnuts, lemon walnut biscotti, lemon peel and walnuts as a topping for green beans...

Nuts in general have been experiencing a turnaround. Because they are so high in fat, nutritionists used to warn against eating too many of them. But it turns out that the fat in nuts is actually healthy. Walnuts are especially high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly alpha-linolenic acid, a plant omega-3 fatty acid. Walnuts balance of omega-3 and omega-6 is just right which is important for your health. Polyunsaturated fat actually lowers cholesterol. Walnuts are a good source of Vitamin E and contain fiber and minerals like copper, magnesium, phosphorus and even iron. They also have antioxidants such as melatonin, ellagic acid, gamma-tocopherol, carotenoids, and polyphenolic compounds. It's possible the combination of all of those nutrients not only helps lower cholesterol, but helps prevent hardening of the arteries and can increase the dilation of blood vessels. The FDA states that a diet including walnuts may reduce the risk of a heart attack. Other research has shown it is beneficial for those with Type II diabetes.

So how much should you eat to get the health benefits? Many studies over the past 15 years have shown that a diet including one to two ounces of walnuts lowers total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol even more. No question about it, two ounces of walnuts, at 400 calories is a lot of calories, but one ounce (about a quarter cup) is only 200 calories. Consuming just a quarter cup of walnuts a few times a week or a couple tablespoons a day may make more sense. Fortunately the amount of protein in nuts can help you stave off hunger so consider walnuts as a healthy and luxurious snack!

Note: Walnuts are available year round, but once you open a package, store it in the fridge.

Here's a list of ways to use walnuts:

* Top pizza dough with walnuts, blue cheese and caramelized onions

* Fill endive with a dab of goat cheese and top with a walnut

* Make an apple, endive and walnut salad (lemon dressing!)

* Top a radicchio leaf with ricotta a drizzle of honey and a toasted walnut

* Add walnuts to a cold sliced steak salad

* Blend walnuts in a banana milkshake

* Mix chopped walnuts and scallions to pilaf or wild rice

* Make a creamy pasta sauce with chopped walnuts, ricotta and parmesan

* Serve pears with blue cheese and walnuts

* Toss fettuccine with olive oil, garlic, walnuts and toasted bread crumbs

* Add walnuts to chicken salad along with tarragon and grapes or curry and raisins

* Add to quick breads and cookies

* Top pancakes, ice cream

* Use in pesto

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