The Power of Nuts

Spring 2010 CSANews Issue 74  |  Posted date : May 27, 2010.Back to list

I've been exploring more vegetarian dishes and recipes of late in an attempt to reduce my family's intake of flesh. Nuts have become of interest, as they add flavour, texture and substance to almost every course within a meal, from appetizers to desserts. I use a variety of nuts in my homemade pestos. But beyond pesto, nuts have remained in the background of my culinary repertoire.

I've always been under the impression that nuts are high in fat and hard to digest and so should be avoided - except for special occasions, such as the holidays, when I justify overindulgence.

I once heard that one almond per day is good for the heart and helps to prevent cancer.  In actual fact, it's 2.5 ounces of almonds per day that keeps this muscle pumping. New research shows that if you eat this quantity of almonds per day for one month, your LDL cholesterol level will be reduced by 9.4 per cent.

Arginine is a heart-healthy amino acid - contained in almonds - that boosts nitric oxide, relaxing the blood vessels. This supports flexible arteries and healthy blood.

It's almond's vitamin E content that helps to reduce the risk of cancer. This vitamin also reduces other risks, such as cataracts and Alzheimer's and can slow aging. Almonds are also high in protein and provide calcium.

Almonds seem to have a good P.R. firm working for them. But many other nuts are as good for us. Nuts should be incorporated into our daily lifestyle diets. This doesn't justify raiding the refrigerator to place a heaping tablespoon of peanut butter into one's mouth. Moderation is the key to eating food and sipping wine!

Cashews are my favourite. A native of eastern Brazil, cashews are the seeds of the cashew apple that grows on the cashew tree. Contrary to popular belief, cashews have less fat than other nuts. About 75% of the fat within this seed is an unsaturated fatty acid called 'oleic acid.' This is the same monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. And we know the benefits of olive oil!

Science now reveals that oleic acid is good for the heart. In fact, research tells us that monounsaturated fat, when added to a low-fat diet, can help to reduce high triglyceride levels. High triglycerides are related to heart disease.

Pistachios should be considered a super food. Full of fibre and protein, they are low in calories and fat and contain a good source of 30 different vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, including copper, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and B6. And like red wine, pistachios also possess phenolic compounds, an antioxidant. Have you heard of plant sterols or phytosterol? Well pistachios possess this benefit, too. Plant sterols contain cholesterol-lowering properties.

I've always incorporated walnuts into my pestos, as their pleasant bitterness complements red wine. Like other nuts, walnuts are high in fibre, vitamins B and E, magnesium, antioxidants, plant sterols and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Of all the varieties, walnuts contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

So, there's every reason to incorporate almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts and other nut varieties into one's diet. Be sure to include a glass of wine, however. That's my advice.

For variety, consider nuts for appetizers when entertaining. Their weight, texture and flavour can create extraordinary recipes that partner well with wine. Be sure to use unsalted nuts, to keep your sodium intake reasonable and also to control the salt content of your recipe.

Make sure that you consider the weight, texture and flavour of the appetizer featuring nuts when choosing an accompanying vintage.

Mildly flavoured nuts such as almonds and pistachios in appetizers complement white wines. Because nuts have heavy texture and healthy fat, in general, choose full-bodied whites. Look for whites from warm climates with higher alcohol. Alcohol increases the viscosity (thickness) in wine, giving it a fatty mouth feel. Or look for barrel-fermented and aged Chardonnays. Barrel fermentation adds loads of flavour and complexity that can stand up to the taste of nuts.

Your nut appetizer might just be too heavy to partner with light-bodied, crisp, dry whites such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris. Pine nuts might be an exception to this rule, if sprinkled sparingly on the dip or appetizer. Cashews and walnuts demand reds.

In the summer, I like to keep a variety of homemade nut pestos on hand for last-minute entertaining. Pesto can be spread onto any toasted canapé to create a stunning appetizer to partner with wine. I use fresh mint from my garden to make my pestos. When incorporated with lots of raw garlic, parmesan and strong-tasting nuts, the mint flavour subsides in the pesto. What is left is the 'herbal' flavour that blends nicely with all the other ingredients. Friends cannot tell the difference. Fresh mint is easy to grow and grows rapidly. So, there's always available mint on hand when needed. I also avoid pine nuts because of their price. There are so many other delicious nuts that are reasonably priced, work in pestos and complement wine.

Different herbs partner well with various wines, too. Parsley and cilantro are great herbs in pestos to pair with white wines. Oregano and basil pestos complement red wines.

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Here are two appetizer recipes celebrating nuts that are easy to prepare and complement wine.

Shiitake Mushroom and Toasted Cashew Pate
  • Serves 4 to 6
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped scallions
  • 1 + 1/4 lb shiitake mushrooms, chopped*
  • 2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 cup toasted, unsalted cashews
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tsp fresh and finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 French baguette, sliced and toasted
*If fresh shiitake mushrooms are not in season or you're working on a budget, choose a less expensive wild mushroom (such as Portobello) and buy a small bag of dried shiitake mushrooms (2.5 to 4 ounces). Soak the dried mushrooms in the 1/3 cup of vegetable oil, as the oil will absorb much of the exotic shiitake taste. Add the oil and hydrated shiitake mushrooms to the sauté pan with the portobellos.

Heat vegetable oil in a skillet on high heat. Add the scallions, mushrooms, garlic, curry and cumin. Sauté for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a food processor, grind up cashews. Slowly add olive oil until it is a thick paste. Transfer nut paste into a bowl. Add mushroom mixture to food processor and puree. Transfer the mushroom mixture into the same bowl and fold them together. Cover pate with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour to allow flavours to meld. As guests arrive, serve pate with toasts.

Wine suggestion: The heavy weight and earthy flavour of this appetizer demands a full-bodied, rich earthy red wine, such as Amarone from Italy. In the making of Amarone, the grapes are left to dry, shrivel and become concentrated. This process is called appassimento or rasinate (to dry and shrivel) in Italian and gives the resulting wine richness, depth and concentrated flavours.

Mint Walnut Pesto
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 3/4 cup toasted unsalted walnuts*
  • 2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 3 cups packed fresh mint
  • Extra virgin olive oil as needed
*Place walnuts in a dry fry pan and toast.

In a food processor or blender, combine all ingredients and puree into a thick paste. Seal in a jar and refrigerate until needed.

Wine suggestion: The heavy weight and pleasant bitterness of walnuts and the saltiness of parmesan demand a big red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon from California, Chile or Australia.


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Related links
Fast Facts About Nuts
Nuts and Seeds OK for Diverticulosis?