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Let’s go nuts for the holidays

Nutty Butternut Squash Rounds taste just as amazing as they look, or sound, for that matter. (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

It’s December. Wintertime evokes visions of sitting by a hearth cracking nuts, which are now at their peak of freshness, and widely available. Popular holiday songs mention “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” — a custom that few Americans know. But walnuts and almonds are our most popular tree nuts. Many other nuts are popular to crack — if not roast — by the fire. At holiday parties, nuts in their shells and nutcrackers are a common snack.

Nuts are common in sweet treats like breads and muffins (think cranberry-nut bread). They’re also added to cookies. They’re also great as a topping for salads or vegetable dishes.

This gift from nature that benefits both people and animals. Squirrels aren’t the only ones who store them up for winter; humans do too. Botanically, nuts are dry fruits with a hard seed inside. There is a large variety of edible ones, and every continent has at least one type of native nut tree. Most familiar are almonds, English walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios and peanuts (which are not true nuts, but legumes). More exotic varieties include Macadamias and Brazil nuts. There are also black walnuts, butternuts (white walnuts), filberts or hazelnuts, and chestnuts.

One of the earliest food staples, they were eaten by hunter gatherer societies since the beginning of time. Almonds were prized by ancient Egyptians and were known in Biblical times, the Romans spread the cultivation of walnuts into regions of central Europe. During the Middle Ages, wild nuts were abandoned by so-called civilized societies in favor of cultivated crops. They were re-discovered in the 20th Century. Today, 95% of the nuts cultivated in North America are grown by the Diamond Group in the Central Valley of California.

Today, many people are allergic to nuts. Others avoid nuts because of their high fat and caloric values, but nuts are a good source of protein and most of their fat is the healthy, unsaturated kind. Recent research confirms that nuts are a nutritional bonanza. In fact, according to the FDA, “eating a diet that includes one ounce of nuts daily can reduce your risk of heart disease.”

Nuts provide the crunch in this salad. (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

That is because several studies done throughout the world during the last 15 years (including 1998 Harvard research, the Adventist Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study and the Physicians’ Health Study) have confirmed that nuts, which contain fiber, antioxidants, and lots of mono and polyunsaturated fats (which reduce bad LDL cholesterol and increase good HDL) help lower the risk of heart and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

While nutritional content varies by variety, nuts contain fiber, vitamin E, folate, magnesium, potassium, calcium, manganese, copper, and other important phytochemicals, such as arginine, an amino acid that protects blood vessels from constriction and tocophenol, a powerful anti-cancer agent.

A quick source of energy, nuts make a great snack between meals and good outdoor fare. Take some along for that ski, snowshoe or hike. But remember that they’re rich, so consume sparingly — by the handful, not the bagful!

Nuts add rich flavor and crunchy texture to both sweet and savory dishes. Use them whole, sliced, slivered, chopped, or ground in cakes, cookies, candies, tarts, pies and puddings. They’re also great in sauces, on salads, vegetables, and even with fish or chicken.

The freshest, tastiest nuts are those in the shell, which keeps out light, air, mold and insects, all of which can damage nuts. But they are also the least convenient for cooking.

Nut torte (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

When shopping, look for whole, clean shells without cracks or blemishes. Shake them: most nuts should rattle. When buying shelled nuts, avoid any that are shriveled or discolored. While airtight containers preserve flavor and freshness, they make it impossible to inspect the nuts.

Store in a cool, dry place; we keep ours in the fridge, wrapped in plastic. Because nuts are high in fat, they will turn rancid as they age.

For maximum flavor, toast nuts before using either in the oven or in a skillet, just until fragrant. Be careful when doing this: they toast very quickly.

Nutty Butternut Squash Rounds

Ingredients:

1 butternut squash with a long neck

2 teaspoons cooking oil

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon sage

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

Walnuts

Cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375°F. Coat a large (9′ x 13″) baking dish with cooking spray.

2. Cut off the neck of the squash and slice into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. A 3-inch neck will give you 6 rounds. Save the remainder of the squash to use at another time.

Place the squash rounds on the prepared baking sheet. Brush lightly with oil and sprinkle with herbs. Cover with foil. Bake 25 – 30 minutes, or until just fork-tender, while you make the topping.

Remove squash from oven. Test for doneness. Layer cheese and nuts on top of squash. Return to oven to toast the nuts and melt the cheese.

Fresh Greens with Nuts and Cranberries

Ingredients:

Dressing:

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon maple syrup or honey (optional)

1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar or lemon juice

Salad:

1 lb. mesclun or mixed lettuces

1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

1/2 cup craisins (dried cranberries)

1 cup walnuts (or other nuts like slivered almonds), preferably lightly toasted

Directions:

Crush garlic. Whisk with remaining ingredients in bottom of salad bowl.

Toss greens into dressing. Add remaining ingredients and toss again to combine.

Nut Torte

Ingredients:

6 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 cup nuts,(preferable walnuts) ground

1 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grind the nuts (a food processor works well). Separate eggs. Beat whites until stiff peaks form. Beat eggs with sugar. Add nuts and bread crumbs alternately to egg mixture, while beating, until you get a stiff batter. Fold in the egg whites.

Prepare two 9-inch diameter cake pans. Line with wax paper, then butter or oil and sprinkle lightly with crumbs. Divide batter between the two pans. Bake at 350°F about 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

When cool, fill with jam or frosting, and spread with frosting. Chocolate or coffee frosting goes well.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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