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Macadamia: A Tough Nut to Crack

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Among the world’s great gastronomic mysteries is how our forebears learned to eat inaccessible or seemingly inedible foods. Consider the artichoke, whose barbed petals serve as a botanical suit of armor, or rhubarb, whose leaves are poisonous. And what could be more off-putting than a gnarled, closed-tight oyster shell dripping salt water, or a hive full of angry bees protecting their cache of honey?

The least-likely-to-be-eaten member of the nut family is the once-rare but increasingly popular macadamia nut. This soft, buttery nut hides in a shell so hard that it takes a pressure of more than 300 pounds per square inch to crack it. Hawaiians reportedly would place the nuts between boards and drive over them in their cars to extract the sweet meats from the iron-hard shells.

Exceptional measures, perhaps, but then the macadamia is no ordinary nut. Imagine an orb the size of a large hazelnut, straw-colored and softly crunchy, with a mild, sweet-salty, fruity, buttery flavor and the richness of heavy cream. Though the macadamia has a refined, delicate flavor, you would never call it bland.

The macadamia nut grows on a tall, subtropical evergreen tree whose dark leaves are shaped like holly. The tree produces long sprays of perfumed white flowers (as many as 600 to a spray) that blossom throughout the year. Each spray yields two to 10 nutlets, which develop into macadamia nuts.

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Native to Australia, macadamia nuts were first eaten by the aborigines, who flocked to slopes of the Great Dividing Range in eastern Australia each fall to collect and feast on the seeds. The first European to “discover” the tree was botanist Ferdinand von Mueller. He named it after his friend, Australian scientist John Macadam, in 1857.

Curiously, for the next few decades, the tree was prized as an ornamental, not a food source, even after its arrival in Hawaii in the 1870s. It took a businessman from Massachusetts, Ernest Shelton Van Tassel, to recognize the nut’s culinary and commercial potential.

At the time, islanders would serve macadamia nuts sauteed in butter as a snack to accompany cocktails. In the early 1920s, Van Tassel planted the island’s first macadamia plantation, and by the 1930s, his nuts were a common sight at local grocery stores.

Today, the industry is dominated by the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp., which owns more than 10,000 acres of macadamia orchards and more than a million individual trees. Not bad for a product that as recently as 20 years ago was virtually unknown in the continental United States. Inspired by the nut’s success, growers are now experimenting with growing macadamias in Florida and California.

More plantings are certainly needed. Retailing for upward of $15 a pound (shelled), macadamias rank among the world’s costliest nuts. But even if there were twice the number of orchards, macadamias would still be expensive. It takes five years for a tree to start bearing fruit and 15 years to reach full production. The nuts ripen continuously for a six-month period, so each tree must be harvested five or six separate times.

Once gathered, the macadamias are dried and cured, then cracked between steel rollers. A certain number of nuts get broken in the shelling process. While this represents a lower profit margin for the growers, it’s good news for cooks. Macadamia pieces cost considerably less than the whole nuts, and, unlike the latter, they’re salt-free. (The whole nuts are roasted in oil and lightly salted before packing.)

Macadamias are highly perishable, so store them in the refrigerator or freezer. They can be used any way you would almonds or hazelnuts: ground to make tortes and pie crusts, chopped and added to cookies and brownies, whole for dipping in chocolate or caramel. You can even make a tropical baklava, substituting chopped macadamias for the traditional walnuts.

But don’t stop there. While most of us think of nuts in the context of dessert making, macadamias are delicious in savory dishes. I like to use ground macadamia nuts as a breading for fish and chicken fillets. And chopped macadamia nuts are great in salads, stuffings and pilafs.

To grind macadamia nuts, use a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade. Run the machine in short bursts so you don’t reduce the nuts to an oily paste. (It helps to add a handful of bread crumbs.) If you don’t have a food processor, use a meat grinder. To enhance the flavor, toast the nuts on a baking sheet at 350 degrees until lightly browned, three to four minutes.

Like most nuts, macadamias are fairly fattening, with 200 calories per ounce. (Fortunately, they’re so rich that a few go a long way.) In terms of their nutritional breakdown, they’re about 7% protein, 13% carbohydrate and 77% fat (mostly unsaturated).

But there’s more to macadamia nuts than snacking, as you can see from the recipe below.

Here’s a tropical twist on classic trout amandine. The recipe calls for snapper, but you can use any mild, white-fleshed fish available in your area, including cod, bass, pompano or mahi-mahi.

MACADAMIA NUT CRUSTED SNAPPER

4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless snapper fillets

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup macadamia nuts or nut pieces

1 cup bread crumbs (preferably homemade)

1 cup flour

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup clarified butter or 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons oil

Lime wedges for serving

Season fish to taste on both sides with salt and pepper. Grind macadamia nuts and bread crumbs to fine powder in food processor, running machine in short bursts. (Do not over-grind, or you’ll reduce nuts to oily mess.) Place nut mixture in shallow bowl, flour in another shallow bowl and eggs in third shallow bowl.

Heat butter in large skillet over medium heat. Dip each piece of fish first in flour, shaking off excess, then in beaten eggs, then finally in macadamia mixture. Saute fish in butter 2 minutes per side or until cooked to taste. Place snapper on plates or serving platter and serve with lime wedges. Makes 4 servings.


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