- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

DAVIS, Calif. — The Romans willingly paid dearly for walnuts and threw them at weddings for fertility, but walnuts have a history that’s even more ancient than that of the Romans, dating to prehistoric times. Today, they are used in foods around the world, particularly for baked goods and confections.

With the focus on good fats and bad fats in our diet, the walnut has come into fashion with those who see it as an easy way to stock up on the good fats. This year, California’s Walnut Marketing Board dubbed the walnut the “Mega Nut” to highlight its polyunsaturated fats, a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

(One ounce of walnuts, about 14 walnut halves, contains 190 calories, 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, 0 cholesterol, 1.5 grams saturated fat, 2.5 grams monounsaturated and 13 grams polyunsaturated fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

The two major species of walnuts in the United States are the English or Persian walnut, which originated in Persia and was brought here from Europe, and the black walnut, a U.S. native.



English walnuts were first planted in Southern California about 1770 by the Spanish Mission fathers, says Gail McGranahan, a pomologist at the University of California at Davis. (“English” refers to the English merchant marines who transported the nuts for world trade.)

The temperate climate and nutrient-rich soil in California’s Central Valley attracted growers and helped the industry thrive. Walnut trees are now cultivated in a 370-mile region, primarily in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. The state has more than 5,000 growers and 50 processors, producing a yearly average of 300,000 tons of walnuts — or 99 percent of U.S. walnuts and the majority of the world supply.

The black walnut, although edible and historically a staple of American Indians, is not used commercially for food because of its hard shell and small nutmeat yield. The Eastern American black walnut, found east of the Rocky Mountains, is grown for its wood. Walnut wood is prized for furniture — in particular burled walnut, used as a veneer and for dashboards in luxury cars.

The Northern California black walnut is so hardy that its roots are used as rootstock, and scientists at the University of California at Davis demonstrated how English nut varieties are grafted onto the roots of black walnut trees. There are 37 varieties, hybrids of the English or Persian walnut, in the United States.

Walnut trees can produce fruit for up to a century and bear their first fruit within 5 to 7 years of planting. Because it takes so long to realize a profit, California growers are mostly multigenerational family farms (which can diversify with other crops while waiting for profits) as opposed to corporations seeking quick profits.

We often think of the ripe walnut as a favorite holiday nut, used in baking or the festive nut bowl, but walnuts can be picked and used when they are green (unripe) or half-ripe. The sour, green, unripe walnut can be made into brandy, jams, marmalade, ketchup and pickles. The nutmeat of half-ripe walnuts is used in syrups in the Middle East.

Ripe walnuts are associated mostly with confections, candies and baked goods, including baklava, breads, cookies and ice cream. Grower David Skinner and his wife, Tina, say they like to grind walnuts into the crusts of pies, quiches and cheesecake.

Walnuts also are popular for savories and other uses, such as pesto and salads. French walnut growers make a walnut wine, and nuts are pressed to extract walnut oil, frequently used in salads and cooking. (Walnuts are about 70 percent oil.)

Walnut shells are ground for use in cosmetics and as an industrial abrasive or burned to produce heat and generate fuel. Walnut juice has been used as a dark brown dye.

Buying and storing walnuts

Although walnuts are available year-round, grower Jack Mariani says the best time to buy them is in October during the harvest, which runs from September through November. He recommends always asking merchants how fresh nuts are.

• Store in-shell nuts away from sun and in a cool, dry place (under 50 degrees) for several months.

• Packaged shelled walnuts, good for a year if stored properly, should be kept in a sealed container in the freezer or on the top shelf (for lower humidity) in the refrigerator.

• Frozen shelled nuts can last up to two years. This cold storage prevents insect contamination and keeps the oils from oxidizing and subsequently turning rancid. (Nuts smell like paint and have an off taste when rancid.)

Toasting walnuts

Toasting walnuts brings out their crunch and flavor, which can be enhanced further by adding dried or powdered spices.

To oven-toast, spread walnuts evenly on an ungreased baking sheet and toast in a 325 degree oven for 8 to 12 minutes, depending on size. Check and toss nuts frequently to allow even cooking and prevent overcooking. (Walnuts darken as they toast and when out of oven.) Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

These flavorful nuts can be sprinkled onto salads, cereal or pasta or eaten out of hand as a snack or appetizer.

Cracking walnuts

Do your walnuts break into tiny pieces when you crack the nuts with a nutcracker?

The best way to keep halves intact is to use a hammer. Stand the walnut on its pointy end and gently strike the top of the flat end on one half, perpendicular to the seam. Insert a knife into the seam and carefully work it around the nut to pull apart the shell.

When the nut is halved, notice how the nutmeat forms a heart shape as it sits inside the shell. No matter how you crack nuts, be sure to discard the bitter papery membrane between the nut halves.

More information about walnuts is available on the Web: www.walnuts.org.

Belgian endive with Roquefort, walnuts and cranberries

This recipe is from chef David Vartanian of Vintage Press restaurant in Visalia, Calif.

4 heads Belgian endive

1/4 cup cranberries, dried

1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

4 ounces Roquefort cheese (about 1 cup), lightly crumbled

1/2 cup Roquefort dressing (recipe follows)

Watercress for garnish (optional)

Trim the base of the endive using a diagonal cut, then separate the leaves. Toss the cranberries, nuts and Roquefort together in a bowl, being careful not to break up the Roquefort too much. Spoon the mixture into the endive leaves and garnish with the watercress.

For advance preparation: Fill the endive leaves up to 3 hours before serving, cover and chill. Garnish just before serving. Drizzle with Roquefort dressing, as desired.

ROQUEFORT DRESSING:

1/4 cup Roquefort cheese, crumbled

3/4 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup buttermilk

Juice of 2 limes

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Pinch black pepper

Melt Roquefort cheese in the oven or in a pan on top of the stove, being very careful not to scorch. Let cool. In a bowl, combine the melted cheese, mayonnaise, buttermilk, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, red wine vinegar and black pepper; mix well until all ingredients are combined. If desired, add more Roquefort cheese to taste for an even more intense flavor. Makes 4 servings.

Walnut-crusted halibut with honey-soy sauce

This recipe is from chef Joey Kistler of the Cutting Horse restaurant in San Juan Bautista, Calif.

1/4 cup flour

Pinch of salt and pepper

2 cups clover honey

1/3 cup soy sauce

Four 6-ounce Alaskan halibut fillets

2 eggs lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water

1-1/2 cups walnuts, toasted, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Stir a pinch of salt and pepper into the flour and reserve in a shallow dish. Whisk together the honey and soy sauce and reserve in another dish.

Dip the halibut fillets in the flour, coating thoroughly and shaking gently to remove any excess. Next dip them in the beaten egg wash, draining off any excess; then immediately roll them in the walnuts to coat. Reserve for 5 minutes to allow the coating to set.

Heat the olive oil in an ovenproof skillet large enough to hold the fillets and add the fish. Cook on one side until golden brown; flip carefully and immediately put the skillet into the oven for 5 minutes, or until the fish are cooked through.

Arrange on a plate and drizzle with the reserved honey-soy sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Walnut-crusted pork tenderloin

This recipe is from Mr. Kistler of the Cutting Horse restaurant.

1/2 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper, freshly ground

1 pound pork tenderloin, cleaned and trimmed

2 eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon water

1-1/2 cups walnuts, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

Maple syrup sauce (recipe follows)

Toss together the flour, salt and pepper. Cut the tenderloin into two equal portions.

Roll the tenderloin in the flour, shaking to remove excess. Dip the tenderloin in the beaten egg wash and roll to coat thoroughly. Drain off excess. Roll the coated tenderloin in the crushed walnuts, pressing gently to secure the crust. Set aside for 5 minutes for the coating to “set.”

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the tenderloin pieces and sear well on all sides.

Add 1 to 1-1/2 cups of the warm maple syrup sauce and cook over medium heat, turning the tenderloins often to coat with sauce and keep the crust from burning.

The sauce will reduce to a thick glaze; add more, if necessary, to keep the desired consistency. When the pork is just pink in the center, remove from the pan and reserve. Reduce the sauce if necessary to get a thick glaze.

Slice the pork on the diagonal and arrange on 4 plates.

Drizzle with the thick, glazed sauce.

Makes 4 servings.

MAPLE SYRUP WALNUT SAUCE:

3/4 cup walnuts, toasted

2 cups maple syrup

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

Add all ingredients to a small pot, bring to a boil and set aside. Serve warm with walnut-crusted pork tenderloin. Makes 4 servings.

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