Until last week I thought almond producers had found every way under the spring sun to market their product: in the shell, whole, blanched, slivered, sliced, ground into flour and pressed into oil. Now I see they want us to eat their young.
Green almonds, with crisp white kernels inside pale fuzzy hulls, have just started turning up on both coasts, and they may be the greatest thing since pea shoots. The nuts in an almost embryonic state taste slightly like cucumber, with a satisfying crunch. And prying them out of their tight casing is half the fun, like shelling peanuts. Or sweet peas.
Considering that California has been producing close to a billion pounds of almonds a year the last few years -- nearly the entire domestic crop and 80% of the world’s -- I guess a few babies can be spared as a new symbol of spring. Seeing them does tend to raise a cook’s consciousness of how well almonds in any form go with so many seasonal ingredients, whether asparagus or watercress or soft-shell crabs.
This year’s harvest, which will begin in August, may be somewhat lighter because of the rainy weather, according to Colleen Aguiar of the Almond Board of California. But prodigious production has already made almonds almost a staple in most kitchens. Marcona almonds imported from Spain, the state’s closest competitor, are also increasingly available, although their richer, nuttier flavor and serious crunch come at nearly twice the price.
Unlike other nuts, which are associated more with wintry cooking, almonds are not oily and dense. They have a light, clean, almost springy flavor, whether you try them mature, roasted or, now, green.
Judy Rodgers of San Francisco caused a bit of a stir when her “Zuni Cafe Cookbook” came out in 2002 with a photograph of green almonds on the jacket. Most Americans had never seen such a thing, and even now “everyone gawks at them,” she says. Middle Easterners, however, would come up to her on book tours expressing great nostalgia for an ingredient they remembered more as a vegetable.
My Tehran connection says vendors there defuzz the hulls by scrubbing them with burlap rice bags, then soak them in salt water and sell them in paper cones to be eaten whole. Green almonds in the Middle East are smaller than the California kind, though, which may make the ones still in their hulls go down less like unripe plums.
Najmieh Batmanglij, an Iranian cookbook author in Washington, D.C., compares what she calls “fresh almonds” to edamame, except that the almonds do not need to be parboiled. She uses them in a braised dish called koresh that is similar to a tagine. The almonds are sauteed and simmered with meat (or chicken or duck or fish) and served over rice.
Rodgers says green almonds are “hard to get and hard to use,” though. Her source is Monterey Market in Berkeley, but Weiser Farm also sells them at the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica farmers markets and at the Friday Venice farmers market.
New Yorkers can find them at Fairway Market, and Batmanglij says Persian markets in the capital carry them at this time of year. Stewartandjasper.com, the website of a farm in Newman, Calif., promises to have them in May, when the centers may have become more like nuts and less like vegetables.
Green almonds are time-sucking to extract. Each kernel has to be prized out; you can either slice open the hull with a paring knife or slit the “seam” with your thumbnail to pop it. And the flavor is so subtle that it gets lost with sugar, or even in salads, Rodgers says. The best accompaniment is anything salty, whether the prosciutto on her book jacket or antipasto or cheese, she says. Pecorino or ricotta salata is especially lively with them.
Toast for deeper flavor
Green almonds may be addictive, but mature almonds are much more practical. Not only do they come in all those cook-friendly forms, but they also can be used raw, right out of the bag. (I never bother shelling them anymore since they have gotten so easy to find ready to cook, with the bitter dark skin removed.)
Toasting just adds a deeper, more resonant flavor, especially if you want to use them as a garnish or in a salad. I bake them in a shallow pan for about 10 to 15 minutes in a 300-degree oven to turn them taupe and crispy. (With Marconas, you can either saute them in a smidgen of almond oil for about five minutes, then salt them generously, or toss them with even less oil and roast them for 15 minutes and then salt them extravagantly.)
Flavored almonds are becoming increasingly ubiquitous too, with the old Blue Diamond smokehouse nuts joined in supermarkets by Sunkist’s Almond Accents, meant for salads and garnishes. But almonds have such inherent flavor that they don’t need the industrial treatment. Straight from the oven they’re rich and crisp, and a little salt works even more magic.
The new “Spicy Food Lover’s Bible” from Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach includes an easy technique for making your own candied, spiced almonds: Melt a tablespoon of butter in a small skillet, then add a quarter-cup of brown sugar and two teaspoons water and simmer until the sugar melts. Stir in a cup of raw almonds and cook until they’re coated, then toss with two teaspoons cracked black pepper and half a teaspoon of garlic salt and toast on a baking sheet lined with buttered foil in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes.
When the nuts cool, you can break them apart to serve. Curry powder or herbes de Provence can substitute for the pepper.
Plain toasted sliced almonds are the finishing touch for any dish labeled amandine: trout, green beans, rice, even potatoes. But they can also liven up seared veal scallops, especially with a finish of butter, fresh orange juice and a few chives. Chopped to a rough meal, they can also be used to coat fish or turkey or veal to be sauteed.
Slivered raw almonds are best for grinding, especially into a pesto with peppery watercress and tangy pecorino Romano. Toasted, they take on a literally nuttier flavor when ground into a “flour” for a chocolate cake made with no wheat at all. Almond flour is also the foundation of dacquoise, the meringue cousin of cake, and financiers, the elegant little French cookies. (For desserts, add some of the sugar in the recipe to the nuts to keep them from turning to butter when ground in a blender or food processor.)
But almonds can make any dish taste like spring. They are natural partners for chives and for new potatoes or grated carrots in a salad. They have a particular affinity for bacon and for scallions, and all three work well in a cheesy spread or dip. Toasted, slivered almonds tossed into basmati rice with fresh green peas will make a lighter, brighter pilaf.
Sliced almonds are also incomparable pasted onto a white-iced pastry, particularly a bear claw, the best breakfast in the West. But they also fit right into bread pudding, chocolate chip cookies or fruit tarts.
Gary Danko, in “Nuts” by Tina Salter, offers a recipe for spiced almond powder -- a quarter-cup of toasted almonds blended with a third of a cup of sugar, half a teaspoon each of lemon zest and cardamom and a little salt -- to use like cinnamon sugar on toast or oatmeal.
The multifaceted nut
Almonds are one of those gifts of nature that just keep on giving, though. The flavor also comes through in almond oil and extract, and the texture in marzipan and almond paste.
The oil is worth keeping in the refrigerator (to keep it from turning rancid like any oil) as a light alternative to olive oil. (Oil made from toasted almonds is darker and more intense, made for seasoning more than cooking.)
Though I used to pooh-pooh almond extract as cheater’s juice, I now concede that it can intensify the nutty flavor of a cake, especially one made with lots of seriously dark chocolate. It’s made from the oil of bitter almonds, the inedible cousins of the sweet kind, which have a potent aroma and taste.
The best extract I’ve found has a profound flavor of nuts, not alcohol or chemicals; it’s made by Charles H. Baldwin & Sons in West Stockbridge, Mass. It can be ordered from baldwinextracts.com.
For all their multifaceted magic, almonds have taken a back seat to more pleasure-principled nuts in the last few years as marketers have chosen to hammer the health angle. Like any nut, almonds are supremely and undeniably good for you.
But promoting only their nutritiousness is like stationing a doctor behind a bar: It sends the wrong message. Almonds are an indulgence.