Nuts About (Winter) Nuts

It may surprise you that nuts are one of the oldest foods consumed by man and have been a staple in our diets since the beginning of time.  Walnut remains believed to be from around 50,000 B.C. were discovered in Iraq.  Almonds are mentioned in the Bible, dating back to 165 B.C.  In Texas, pecan shells unearthed near human artifacts date back to 6,000 B.C.  In a recent excavation in Israel, archeologists unearthed various primitive nutcrackers.  Scientists believe they are 780,000 years old. 

That gives you an idea as to how long we humans have been consuming nuts.  Most anthropologists agree that our early human ancestors turned to nuts and seeds to stay alive as certain foods, like fruits, disappeared.  It makes sense.  Nuts were one of the first convenience foods.  They were easy to carry and store during the long, cold winter months.

Nuts are one of nature’s superfoods.  They are not only packed with vitamins and minerals but are also the ideal food to warm you up during the cold winter months.  They have a high concentration of healthy fats, proteins, and fiber that the body can easily break down for energy.  This energy then triggers thermogenesis (heat production) in the body.  Perhaps that is why our ancestors turned to them when summer foods were no longer readily available.

Choosing the Best Winter Nuts

Nuts are a complicated food group.  There are many types of edible nuts, and a few of them you most certainly will have tried in your lifetime.  True nuts grow on trees, much like fruits do.  However, unlike fruits, their outer layer hardens to create a protective shell as they mature.  The actual part you eat is the nut inside of this shell.

Scientifically, botanists categorize nuts as tree fruits. In a culinary sense, however, the definition is much less rigid.  For example, a cook will refer to peanuts as a nut when it is, in fact, a legume. Deciding which nut to snack on or use in your culinary adventures is entirely up to your taste. There are, however, a few great choices to look for this winter.

Almonds

Almonds are the second most popular nut in the world, next to peanuts (or first, if you agree with scientists who consider peanuts a legume and not a nut).  They were a prized ingredient in bread served to the Pharos of Egypt and used in recipes calling for milk (a drink made from ground almonds, water, and a sweetener) during the Middle Ages.  The oil from the almond was used as medicine in many cultures well before the documented time of Christ.  Romans gave gifts of sugared almonds at weddings and births as early as 200 BC.

What makes an almond so good?  Almonds help regulate blood sugar levels, help reduce cholesterol, boost your overall immunity, reduce the risk of heart disease, and detoxify your lungs.  The almond skin is jam-packed with antioxidants.  Almonds are an excellent source of Vitamin E, magnesium, and riboflavin.  High in fiber and phosphorus, a one-ounce serving provides 13 grams of “good” unsaturated fats.

The exact origin of the almond is unknown, but the thought is they originated in China and Central Asia.  Its popularity spread worldwide as traders traveled the Silk Road between Asia and the Mediterranean.  Harvesting occurs from August to September, and today we get most of our almonds from the United States.  The only downside to the almond is that it is quite a high-calorie food, so you should limit your intake.  Almonds are also harder to digest, and if large amounts consumed, may be toxic. 

Regardless, almonds are a favorite ingredient in the culinary world due to their versatility.  Extremely versatile, they are often the main component in various baked goods, like Amygdalota (a Greek almond cookie).  Or when adding a little French flair in a Sole Amandine.   Whatever dish the almonds are in will not only be delicious but nutritious.

Walnuts

The Ancient Greeks called walnuts karyon, or head because the shell resembled a skull and the nut itself a brain.  They were so popular that they even mentioned them in a mythological tale about the God Dionysus that turned his love, Carya, into a walnut tree when she died.  Historically, walnuts are one of the oldest recorded nuts.  The first literary account dates back to Babylon circa 2,000 B.C.

Archaeological excavations in southwest France have uncovered roasted walnut shells dating back at least 8,000 years ago.  It seems our ancestors knew just how good these nuts are for you.  Today, walnuts are the third most eaten nut in the world.

Walnuts are an excellent source of ALA, an anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid.  Our bodies can only produce small amounts of ALA, so turning to walnuts is a good option. ALA is crucial for digestion, absorption, and the creation of energy.  It reduces inflammation, promotes healthy nerve functions, lowers the risk of heart disease, and slows the progression of memory loss disorders.

Walnuts are one of the few foods that contain juglone, tellimagrandin, and morin.  These antioxidants play a crucial role in determining the way we age.  Rich in Vitamins B and E, walnuts are bites of power-packed healthy goodness.  Although they have a slightly bitter flavor, when combined with other ingredients they shine bright.  Use them in cookies, cakes, and Greek desserts like Rolled Baklava.  Harvested all over the world (including in Canada), they are available starting in October.  So, forget about Botox and grab a handful of walnuts instead.

Cashews

Cashew nuts take the number four spot in popularity. Humans first learned to eat these mild and creamy nuts by observing capuchin monkeys about 7,000 years ago.  Although the cashew originated in Africa, the European upper class quickly embraced it.  They even used the cashew apple pulp to make wine.

Why only the upper class? Each cashew fruit only produces one cashew and can take three years to start producing fruit. As a result, the supply was limited.  Today, cashews are one of the most expensive nuts to purchase for this very same reason. 

Cashews in their raw, unprocessed state can be fatal.  A natural toxin called urushiol located around the cashew shell is similar to the chemicals found in poison ivy.  You will never be able to purchase them raw.  Cashews, once processed, are still high in fiber, rich in Vitamin E, and a good source of zinc and magnesium.  Cashews are widely used in Indian, Thai, and Chinese foods and can be steamed, salted, or roasted.  Look for cashews from eastern Africa harvested in October and November.

Pistachios

This nut of kings (or king of nuts) is the fifth most popular nut worldwide.  The pistachio tree is one of the oldest surviving tree species and has a rich history.  A recent dig site near northeastern Iraq unearthed evidence of their consumption dating back to 6,750 B.C.  Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba decreed pistachios an exclusively royal food, forbidding commoners from growing it for personal use.  Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon, planted pistachio trees in his fabled hanging gardens.  He believed that these nuts were fit for a king’s consumption.   Later in history, the cracking of pistachio nuts was considered a good omen for romantic relationships. Couples met under pistachio trees and waited for the sound of nuts cracking to ensure a successful and happy relationship.

It’s no wonder why the pistachio has such high regard.  Pistachios are very difficult to cultivate and can only grow in a few places in the world under specific conditions.  They require a lot of water and heat and take a long time to grow (about five years before a single fruit).  In addition, pistachio trees only seed every other year.  Pistachios also grow in grape-like clusters that require hand sorting, contributing to even more cost for processing.

They may be expensive, but they are delicious.  With a mild, sweet flavor, pistachios are delicious when roasted. They help induce weight loss, lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.  Pistachios can also help improve blood circulation.  Great for desserts, or just a snack, they are excellent for ice cream, butter, baklava, and Chocolate Biscotti.  Those ancient royals knew what they were doing!

Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts are the next nut in our top seven.  Harvested between September and October, they are used to make the famous spread, Nutella.  Hazelnuts were originally native to eastern and southern Europe but today are cultivated primarily in Turkey and Italy. 

These little ball-shaped nuts were of vital importance for Europeans from 3,000 to 8,000 years ago.  Records in Scandinavia show hazelnut shells in areas dating back to 10,000 years ago.  The Celts even believed they were sacred.  In one tale, nine trees surrounded a sacred pool.  As the tree dropped its nuts into the water, the salmon in the pool ate them and acquired the nut’s mystical wisdom.  Eating the salmon then passed on a prophetic power.

All mysticism aside, they are so rich in protein, carbohydrates, Vitamin E, minerals, and sugar fibers, they became a staple for use after an illness.  The Ancient Greeks used the hazelnut to treat coughs and colds without knowing how good these roundish balls were for you.  Hazelnuts not only help relieve poor appetite, fatigue, weakness, and emaciation, they are a good source of minerals needed by the human body.  Science has shown that they help reduce cholesterol, prevent colon cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, help balance blood pressure, and promote bone growth.

With over a dozen species of hazelnuts, they are used in various desserts, ground into flour, or made into a paste. When combined with chocolate, it is a marriage made in heaven.  Just ask Michele Ferrero that developed the Ferrero Rocher in 1982, selling approximately 3.6 billion every year in 42 countries.

Pecans

Hello, pecan pie – or pecan tart – or candied pecan – or sticky buns – or pecan anything. Pecans, mostly harvested in September and October, come from our southern friends in the United States and Mexico. They are sweet and buttery on their own, but when used in desserts, magic happens.  

Pecans not only taste good but are also heart-healthy. With more than 19 vitamins and minerals packed in each nut, they can help lower blood pressure and levels of LDL cholesterols, promote brain function, and stabilize blood sugar levels.  Most of the fat found in pecans is monosaturated, making it one of the healthiest nuts to eat.

The pecan does not have as rich a history as some of its other nut friends. Europeans learned about this nut in the 16th century during the discovery of the new lands. Before European settlement in North America, the only consumption was by the Native Americans. Named from the Algonquin tribe’s word pacane, it translates to nuts requiring a stone to crack.  The trees are seasonal and can take over ten years to mature, so pecans tend to be a more expensive nut to purchase.

Chestnuts

Although chestnuts are not on the top ten list of the world’s most popular nuts, they are still an excellent winter choice.  Chestnuts have a far higher carbohydrate content than other nuts and less protein and fat. They are an excellent alternative to other starchy foods such as potatoes and grains.  (People with grain allergies commonly use chestnut flour as a substitute as it is gluten-free.)   Chestnuts are one of the few nuts that contain Vitamin C, with approximately 40mg per 100g of raw product or 65% of the recommended daily intake.

Historians believe that the ancient Greeks were the first to introduce and cultivate chestnuts about 3,000 years ago.  Ancient philosophers wrote about their medicinal properties, and Alexander the Great planted chestnut trees across Europe while on various campaigns.  They can be baked, boiled, or roasted, and some varieties can even be eaten raw.  Soft, sweet, and nutty, they are an exceptional ingredient to use for stuffing or soups.

Are You Nuts Now Too?

Hopefully, you are not a person who has allergies to nuts and can enjoy them throughout the winter months.  Try some decadent nut-infused desserts like Hazelnut and Pistachio Dacquoise.  Or perhaps you would like to make some Indian-inspired Spiced Rice?  How about Chocolate Pistachio Biscotti?  Whatever your preference is, the winter months are a great time to indulge in nuts.  Not only will they help keep you warm, but they will also boost your body with goodness.

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