Where I live in the South, we're partial to pecans, but walnuts have a definite hold on the rest of the world, ranking second only to almonds in popularity. In fact, in many countries the word for walnut and the generic word for nut are one in the same.
Kissing cousin to pecans, hickories and, of course, the North American black walnut, the English walnut is the kind eaten most often today--largely because they are much easier to crack. (Anyone who's spent time with a sack of black walnuts and a hammer will agree.)
When it comes to cooking with walnuts, I like to toast them first because it brings about an incredible change in the flavor. Technically, cooking the nut crisps the edges and brings out the flavor through browning reactions, but that dry description doesn't do the reality justice. The difference between an untoasted walnut and a toasted one is like the difference between an almost ripe peach and a perfectly ripe, so-juicy-you-have-to-eat-it-over-the-sink peach. The untoasted walnut has a good basic flavor; a toasted one is irresistible.
This toasting naturally occurs during the baking of cookies and nut breads so the raw nut is fine for those. For other recipes, though, the full flavor of the walnuts will only develop is if you toast them first.
You can do it in the oven or in a skillet: either way it's simple. The basic idea is to cook the nuts at a temperature high enough to toast them and low enough to keep the outside of the nut from burning while the rest of it cooks. To toast them in the oven, spread whole or chopped nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and cook at 275 degrees--ten minutes for chopped nuts and fifteen minutes for whole nuts.
To toast in the skillet (cast iron is best), put the nuts in a dry skillet and cook over medium heat for five minutes, stirring or shaking the pan frequently. Watch them closely--you don't want them to burn. The pan method works especially well for toasting smaller batches and for dishes like the Garlic-Walnut Sauce (below) where the walnuts are part of a progressively cooked sauce.
If you're toasting nuts for a recipe be sure to toss in a few extra for snacking. Trust me--you won't be able to resist sneaking a few.
And don't limit yourself to just adding walnuts to sweets--walnuts take on a whole new character in savory dishes. For a flavorful crunch, try tossing a few in your next salad. Combined with garlic, as in this Garlic-Walnut Sauce, they're downright decadent.
Garlic Walnut Sauce
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups coarsely-chopped walnuts
- 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon dry white wine
- 1/8 cup milk
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
- 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a skillet until it sizzles, then add the olive oil and walnuts, cooking until the nuts begin to brown. Add the garlic and cook just until it softens. Remove the pan from the heat and add the wine, milk, cheese, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste, then toss with cooked pasta--I like a sturdy variety like fettuccine or linguini. Serve with warm bread and a simple salad for a surprisingly easy and satisfying meal.
Like most nuts, walnuts are fat-rich--a whopping 64 percent fat, to be exact. Before you sprint for the Stairmaster, remember all that fat is one reason walnuts taste so good. Keep in mind, too, that we don't generally eat an entire meal of walnuts but use them as a garnish or as flavor bursts in cookies and cakes.
Unfortunately, all that fabulous fat also makes them more susceptible to spoiling. You can ward off rancidity in two ways: first, buy shelled walnut halves--a little more expensive than chopped walnuts but they stay fresher longer because less surface area of the nut is exposed to air. Second, store them in an airtight container in the freezer where they'll keep for up to a year.
When buying walnuts, look for plump, firm nuts that have a slightly oily look and leave dry, shrunken ones on the shelf--they've already lost much of their flavor.
You can also buy bottled walnut oil; this robust, nutty oil isn't really a cooking oil but a condiment. Splash some on a salad with a little balsamic vinegar or drizzle on grilled meats for an intriguing nutty touch.
When you're ready for dessert, substitute walnuts for the pecans in your favorite pecan pie recipe, or try something different: fill a platter with toasted walnuts, your favorite sharp cheeses and crisp apple slices. A bite of cheese, a bite of walnut, a bite of apple---mmmm. . . .now, what was I saying?