As the fresh-crop walnut season crests, those bins and baskets filled with glorious piles of satin-shelled, wrinkly brown nuts evoke all sorts of associations for Southern Californians.
For some of us, they’re a reminder of suburban childhoods, when the many local groves and homestead plantings meant autumn fun as we shook down the green-husked nuts or foraged among fallen leaves for still-yummy leftovers. For others, they bring to mind the cuisines of far-away homelands in the Mediterranean or the upcoming joys of holiday baking. And for outdoors lovers, they’re a domesticated reminder of a beautiful gray-barked native tree that still graces many a hiking trail and wildland area.
So it makes sense to enjoy the high-harvest flavors in all sorts of ways. We’re talking, after all, about a nut with a fascinating interplay of opposites: the slight bitterness of the tannins in the pellicle (or thin skin) against the sweet nut meat; the ethereal fragrance versus the earthy crunch.
For creamy, sweet, fresh-nut tastes, choose walnuts in the shell and crack and eat them a few at a time with juicy apples and cheese; the accompaniments cut the pucker. Toast shelled halves (in the oven or a dry skillet) to scatter on salads or to use in an essence-of-autumn dessert of honey-poached pear with Greek yogurt and walnuts. If a recipe calls for grinding or chopping nuts, begin with a package of smaller pieces -- they’re less expensive and more convenient.
Some dishes, such as kebabs with muhammara sauce (a condiment of ground walnuts, roasted red peppers and pomegranate molasses) call for the walnut pieces to be toasted before being added to the other ingredients. For cookies and cakes, you’ll often want to add the walnuts untoasted; they’ll take on that roasty flavor as they cook.
A rich but amazingly light cake with a warm brown color more often seen in Renaissance paintings than on the kitchen counter is made using freshly ground walnut meal in place of flour. Grind the nuts just before using to capture the essential oils. And for the best texture, be sure to beat the egg yolks until they’re pale yellow and thick enough to form a ribbon when poured from a spoon; likewise beat the whites until they form stiff peaks so as to give the cake structure.
It’s sometimes surprising how different pairings of ingredients bring out the walnut’s different characteristics. For example, the touch of spice brought in by adding peppercorns to the poaching liquid for the pears works with the walnuts to liven up the sweet dish the same way a wise-cracking friend can spark your own wit. The meatiness of the ground walnuts in the muhammara sauce is focused by the pur?ed red peppers and garlic, almost in the way of a classic meat-tomato sauce. And a warm touch of sherry in the whipped cream that accompanies the cake brings a burnished finish to the dessert.