Ingredient of the Week, December 9: Walnuts
It is no surprise that the regal and delicious walnut comes from an ornamental tree that is highly prized for its beauty. The walnut kernel consists of two bumpy lobes that look like abstract butterflies. The lobes are off white in color and covered by a thin, light brown skin. They are partially attached to each other. The kernels are enclosed in round or oblong shells that are brown in color and very hard.
While there are numerous species of walnut trees, two of the main types of walnuts are the English walnut, the black walnut, or white or butternut walnut. The English walnut is the most popular type in the United States and has a thinner shell that is easily broken with a nutcracker. The black walnut has thicker shells that are harder to crack and a much more pungent distinctive flavor. The white walnut features a sweeter and oilier taste than the other two types, although it is not as widely available and therefore may be more difficult to find.
Throughout its history, the walnut tree has been highly revered; not only does it have a life span that is several times that of humans, but its uses include food, medicine, shelter, dye and lamp oil. It is thought that the walnuts grown in North America gained the moniker "English walnuts," since they were introduced into America via English merchant ships.
Black walnuts and white walnuts are native to North America, specifically the Central Mississippi Valley and Appalachian area. They played an important role in the diets and lifestyles of both the Native American Indians and the early colonial settlers.
Walnuts were thrown to Roman wedding guests by the groom to bring good health, to ward off disease, and increase fertility. Young boys eagerly scrambled for the tossed walnuts, as the groom's gesture indicated his passage into manhood. In Rome, the walnut was thought to enhance fertility, yet in Romania, a bride would place one roasted walnut in her bodice for every year she wished to remain childless.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans believed walnuts would ward off fevers, witchcraft, epileptic fits, the evil eye, and even lightning. The Chinese believe crickets to be a creature of good omen, and would often carry musically-trained crickets in walnut shells covered with intricately-carved patterns.
How To Select and Store
When purchasing whole walnuts that have not been shelled choose those that feel heavy for their size. Their shells should not be cracked, pierced or stained, as this is oftentimes a sign of mold development on the nutmeat, which renders it unsafe for consumption.
Shelled walnuts are generally available in prepackaged containers as well as bulk bins. Whether purchasing walnuts in bulk or in a packaged container avoid those that look rubbery or shriveled. If it is possible to smell the walnuts, do so in order to ensure that they are not rancid.
Due to their high polyunsaturated fat content, walnuts are extremely perishable and care should be taken in their storage. Shelled walnuts should be stored in an airtight container and placed in the refrigerator, where they will keep for six months, or the freezer, where they will last for one year. As long as you keep walnut in the shell in a cool, dry, dark place they will stay fresh for up to six months.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- Mix crushed walnuts into plain yogurt and top with maple syrup.
- Add walnuts to salads or healthy sautéed vegetables.
- Add walnuts to your favorite poultry stuffing recipe.
- Add walnuts to baked quick breads or cookies.
- To roast walnuts at home, do so gently—in a 200-250°F oven for 5-10 minutes.
- Make homemade walnut granola: Mix together approximately 1/2 cup of honey, 3 to 4 tablespoons of blackstrap molasses, a tablespoon of vanilla, a dash of salt, and a teaspoon each of your favorite spices, such as cinnamon, ginger and/or nutmeg. Place 6-8 cups of rolled oats in a large bowl and toss to coat with the honey-blackstrap mixture. Then spread on a cookie sheet and bake at 275°F for 45 minutes. Cool and mix in 1/2 to 1 cup of walnuts.
Do you like to eat walnuts out of hand? Do you use them in cooking? If so, what do you use them in?