x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Nuts about nuts

Compact, nutritious and simply irresistible, nuts are a cracking good snack.

Nuts are a healthy snack.
Nuts are a healthy snack.

In Egyptian mythology, the goddess of the sky was named Nut. It was believed that the heavenly bodies — such as the sun and moon—made their way across her body every day. Although my allegiance to modern observational astronomy persists, that's not to say I don't think that the sun rises and sets on the nut - because actually, I do.

True nuts - in the botanical sense - include hazelnuts, chestnuts and acorns (which are edible, but foraged by few). In the culinary sense, the extended network consists mostly of outsider nuts: almonds, peanuts, cashews, brazil nuts, macadamias, pistachios, pine nuts, pecans and walnuts. You can't beat pancakes bejewelled with pine nuts for breakfast, balls of chevre rolled in crushed pistachios for a snack. I also hope that, one day, mixed nuts will eventually replace pretzels on planes.

Raw walnuts have a bracing astringency that cuts well through rich savoury preparations, such as makdous, an oil-cured aubergine dish that graces baby aubergines with a juicy, garlic-scented stuffing bound with raw, crushed walnuts. Toasting tempers the brashness of raw walnuts into suave and buttery repose. The walnut is often referred to as "brain food", not just because it's a great source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which the body needs but cannot produce on its own, but also because in ancient east Asian medical traditions it was documented as resembling brains, with dual hemispheres and ridged surfaces, subliminally willing us to eat theirs in order to benefit ours.

I've harvested black walnuts and infused batches of ice cream and fudge with their distinctive aroma; the author Samuel Thayer likens the flavour to paint, but it's hard for me to reference paint and walnuts without thinking of rancid walnuts, which bear a pungent, terrible odour reminiscent of paint thinner. Most of the oils in nuts are the healthy, unsaturated kind, which also happen to be more likely to turn rancid than saturated fats, and do so at a rate directly proportional to their fatty acid content. At an upscale chain pizzeria, in one of few instances where I've sent food back, my sister and I once ordered a devastatingly beautiful pear, gorgonzola and walnut pizza that quickened our pulses as it was carried toward us - and then brought tears to our eyes; not of joy, but from the awful, abrasive fumes of rancid walnuts wafting from it.

Perhaps even more beguiling and irresistible than the walnut is the pecan. They aren't easy to find in the UAE, but they are priced reasonably when you locate some, so don't pass them by. Pecan season in the US has just begun, so I'll be stuffing my newly acquired bounty into dates, baking them into pies, and nibbling on them with triple-crème cheese.

For snacking, I favour pistachios in the shell because cracking open the shells, aside from slowing my formidable rate of consumption, gives my fingers a miniature workout that I feel combats the caloric damage done by obliterating piles upon piles of nuts. Interestingly, mangoes, pistachios and gum mastic are all from the sumac family, and the flavours of mango, pistachio and mastic pair wonderfully together. Ditto almonds and peaches, which are from the rose family, and share a delicate, honeyed bouquet.

I like roasted almonds just fine - especially if they've been doused with soy sauce or tamari - but, as with pistachios, it's the heady, marzipan-like finish to the raw nut that holds the greatest charm. If you've ever morbidly wondered why cyanide is said to carry a candy-sweet almond aroma (and, presumably, flavour), it's because it's contained in the bitter almond, a deadly cousin to the sweet almond that is lethal in its raw state but successfully processed to make almond extract (apricot kernels are often used commercially as a cheaper but similarly toxic substitute).

Fleshy green almonds, not yet ripe, are a popular snack in the Arab world, and are usually dipped in salt to balance their salient, mouth-puckering tang. Jordan (or sugared) almonds, enrobed in a bland, brittle candy crust, are my least favourite way for an almond to dress. Though their name originally had me wondering if they had roots in the Levant, I was way off the mark; the term "jordan almonds" came from the French word jardin, (garden), to imply that the almonds, reminiscent of the colours in Monet's water garden, were cultivated. Personal reservations about their pastel hues are trumped by their impressively long history, though, as a tradition of presenting wedding favours of five elegantly packaged jordan almonds representing fertility, wealth, health, longevity and happiness has persevered since the 13th century, with the contrast of bitter almond and sweet candy coating meant to represent the bittersweetness of marriage.

Ultimately, though, no nut can approach the pedestal on which sits the humble peanut. A lifelong fondness morphed into an obsession 10 years ago as I sat, transfixed, before a towering, resplendent and half-eaten banana cake layered with dark chocolate ganache and peanut butter frosting. Natural peanut butter, I learnt, was grainily intense, nothing like the commercial stuff I'd been reared on.

The fact that peanut butter is also the most effective disguise for pills to give your dog, as well as the best bait to set in a mouse trap, only solidifies my conviction that if opposable thumbs are what set us apart from our animal brethren, then peanut butter is our greatest common denominator. I'm embarrassed to admit the number of times I've stood in the kitchen with a spoonful of peanut butter, wondering what else to eat, until I'm too full to care. On second thoughts, I'm not embarrassed; I've just lost count.