Healthy Mediterranean Cooking at Home

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Varieties of nuts: peanuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, cashews, pistachio and pecans. Food and cuisine. Stock Photo - 8333516

Nuts and seeds — raw, toasted, or ground — add flavor, nutrition and texture to just about anything we put them in. Even better, consistent evidence shows that all manner of nuts, including walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and cashews, promote healthy arteries and cholesterol levels when we consume them in moderation. Eating a small handful of nuts about five times a week is recommended.

Botanically speaking, a nut is a dry fruit with a seed that’s encased in a hard, woody shell. While all nuts are seeds (the fruit is the seed — think pecans), not all seeds are nuts (the seed can be separated from the fruit and is not one in the same —think pumpkin seeds).

Here are a number of  healthy nuts that should have a place in your pantry:

ALMONDS: calcium-rich — sold whole, shelled, raw, blanched, sliced, slivered or dry-roasted are available year round. Almond flour is a great gluten free choice in baking.

BRAZIL NUTS: come from magnificent, large trees that grow wild in the Amazon rain forest. Similar to coconut in texture, Brazil nuts are eaten raw or roasted.

CASHEWS: The cashew tree is related to poison ivy and poison sumac, but don’t be afraid ! This rich, curved nut — which is actually lower in total fat than most nuts — is always a crowd favorite.

CHESTNUTS: The lowest in fat of all nuts, chestnuts are appreciated for their flavorful contribution to soups, stuffing and stews, as well as the holiday tradition of eating them roasted. Chestnuts are available fresh only in the autumn, but dried, canned and pureed versions are available year round.

FLAX SEEDS: are the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids and are high in fiber. While they’re identical nutritionally, brown flax seeds have deep, nutty flavor while golden flax seeds are mild. Add to breads, cookies and smoothies or sprinkle on cereal and salads.

HAZELNUTS (also known as. Filberts): Bakers and confectioners are partial to these nutrient dense nuts — which can be made into butter, flour, oil and paste — because their rich flavor and texture lend themselves well to desserts and snack foods.

HEMP SEEDS: are a healthful food with omega 3 fatty acids, similar to flax seeds. They’re also similar in flavor to sunflower seeds and can be used in or on baked goods, salads, yogurt and cereal.

MACADAMIA NUTS: are rich and creamy nuts with the highest fat levels of all nuts and are among the most expensive ones available.

PEANUTS: which are actually legumes, not nuts at all — originated in South America but have become an important crop throughout the tropics and in the southern half of the U.S. They have a good deal of both protein and fiber. They grow on low vines, forcing the shells into the ground.

PECANS: are native to the southern Mississippi River Valley with a buttery and slightly bittersweet taste. They’re excellent in pies, quick breads, cakes, cookies, candies and ice cream.

PINE NUTS ( also called Pignoli nuts): — are exactly what you think; they’re the edible seeds of pine trees. These delicious little nuts are the essential ingredient in fresh pesto or a great addition to salads.

PISTACHIOS: have beige shells with nuts that range from dull yellow to deep green. Primarily sold as a snack food, they’re easily adaptable to recipes where pecans or other nuts are used.

PUMPKIN SEEDS (also known as Pepitas): Roasted pumpkin seeds are commonly eaten in casseroles, salads, soups and breads. Their rich, peanut-like flavor makes them a terrific snack food.

SESAME SEEDS: are frequently sprinkled on breads and cakes as a form of decoration, but they’re delicious and good-looking on just about anything. Look for black or white sesame seeds in the grocery aisles.

SUNFLOWER SEEDS: Sunflowers belongs to the daisy family and are native to North America. Their shelled seeds are delicious eaten raw or toasted or added to cakes and breads or sprinkled on salads or cereals.

WALNUTS: have come into greater favor recently because they contain omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy compound. In addition to their health benefits, walnuts add texture and flavor to pastas, salads, stir fries and desserts.

Tips for Toasting:

While nuts and seeds are certainly delicious eaten raw, toasting them brings out a richer flavor. To enhance their flavor or crisp them up, toast nuts on the stove top or in the oven.

On the stove: Place a single layer of nuts in a heavy, ungreased skillet and toast for 5 to 10 minutes over medium heat, shaking the pan and stirring until the nuts are golden brown and fragrant, then remove them from the pan immediately and let cool.

In the oven: Arrange the nuts in a single layer in a shallow baking pan and bake in a 350°F oven for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring them occasionally.

Nut roast recipe

How To Add More Nuts To Your Recipes:

LEAFY GREENS: Chop the toasted nuts and sprinkle over braised hearty leafy greens like kale or Swiss chard. Finish off with a splash of balsamic vinegar, orange juice, or lemon juice.

SALAD: Try a classic salad combination: bitter leafy greens (arugula), dried fruits ( cherries), fresh seasonal fruits ( pomegranate), fresh herbs, and chopped nuts. Drizzle with a tangy vinaigrette.

FISH OR MEAT COATING: Mince the toasted nuts finely and whisk together with butter, mustard, and seasonings to make a breading, then bake or pan-sear. Try with wild salmon, barramundi, or shrimp for seafood, or lamb, duck, or pork.

FRUIT CRISP OR COBBLER: Substitute any chopped nuts for the usual almonds or walnuts in your crisp or cobbler topping. Also toss some add-ins into the topping mixture, like grated ginger, chopped chocolate chips, or ground cinnamon.

ROASTED VEGETABLES: Combine seasonal vegetables ( Brussels, sweet potatoes, red onions, rutabagas, turnips, and/or pumpkin) with olive oil and seasonings, then bake until golden and soft. Toss cooked veggies with toasted nuts and finish with parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and/or balsamic vinegar to taste.

PIES OR TARTS: Use any combination of toasted nuts as a substitution for pecans in any traditional pecan pie recipe—experiment with different nuts and spices. Use ground nuts as a base for pie crust instead of flour.

HOLIDAY STUFFING: Add a few handfuls of chopped toasted nuts to your seasonal stuffing, especially any stuffing that includes dried/fresh fruits and herbs.

COOKIE BATTER: It’s easy enough to add nuts to any cookie batter before you bake them. Simply fold anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped toasted nuts into your cookie batter just before baking.

PASTA: Cook pasta noodles al dente and toss with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice to taste. Finish with chopped toasted nuts, cheese of choice, and minced herbs like parsley or rosemary.

POPCORN: Add seasoned nuts of choice to freshly popped popcorn for a wholesome snack.

Cooking With Nuts And Seeds:

There are many regional variations of cooking throughout Italy, but in general, grain foods such as pasta, bread, rice, and polenta are mixed in a variety of interesting ways with vegetables, beans, fish, poultry, nuts, cheeses and meat. Nuts such as pine nuts, walnuts and almonds are used in cooking or eaten as snacks. One of Italy’s most famous sauces, pesto—which originates from the seaport of Genoa —is a mixture of pine nuts, garlic, fresh basil, Parmesan cheese and olive oil.

A deliciously different pesto made with walnuts and richly-flavored sun-dried tomatoes, is featured in this post. You can use this pesto as a dip or spread, you can stir it into soups to add richness and flavor and, of course, you can serve it with pasta.

Sun-Dried Tomato and Walnut Pesto

Makes 1 cup                                                                                                                                                                                      

Ingredients:

  • 1 large garlic clove, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1/3 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions:

Place all the ingredients, except the olive oil, in a food processor.

While you process, slowly pour the olive oil into the mix until all the ingredients turn into a smooth paste (you may have to scrape the sides occasionally).

Variations: Pine nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamias, almonds or cashews can be substituted for the walnuts.

Salmon and Asparagus                                                                                             

2 servings

Ingredients:

  • 7 oz Farfalle pasta ( bow tie) or Rigatoni whole wheat or regular (Wheat makes it healthier)
  • 2 uncooked salmon fillets (6 oz each) cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 8 fresh Asparagus spears – trim ends and cut in half 
  • 1 red pepper – julienned
  • 1 cup of the sun dried tomato walnut pesto, recipe above

Directions

First prepare the pesto and set aside.

Boil the pasta and add the asparagus and red pepper to the pot for the final 8 minutes of cooking. Add the salmon to the pot for the final 3 minutes. Drain the cooked pasta, salmon and vegetables in a mesh colander.

Put the pesto in the bottom of the pot and top with hot pasta, salmon and vegetables. Toss or stir together gently to combine well and heat through.

If you prefer, you can use shrimp in place of salmon.

Risotto with Squash, Spinach, Beans and Walnuts

2 servings                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 onion—finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic—finely chopped
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups peeled and cubed pumpkin or winter squash (cut into half inch cubes)
  • 2 packed cups roughly chopped fresh spinach
  • 3/4 cup canned cannellini beans—rinsed well and drained
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped toasted walnuts
  • 1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil

Directions:

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large saucepan and cook the onion for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the garlic and rice, stirring to coat the grains in oil and cook for 1 minute.

Add the wine, stock, salt, black pepper, pumpkin or squash and spinach, stir to combine and bring to a boil.

Cover with a lid, reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes without lifting the lid.

Stir in the white beans, walnuts, Parmesan, basil and remaining tablespoon of oil to combine.

Variations: Use toasted pine nuts instead of the walnuts. Use chickpeas or fresh fava beans instead of the cannellini beans.

Farro Salad                                                                                                        

Servings: 6

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, or you can use pecans (2 ounces)
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 small shallot, minced (2 tablespoons)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 cups Thyme-Scented Farro, recipe below

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread the pine nuts in a pie plate and toast until golden, about 5 minutes. Let cool.

In a bowl, whisk the oil with the vinegar and shallot and season with salt and pepper. Add the Thyme-Scented Farro, pine nuts, apple, pomegranate seeds and parsley; toss before serving.

MAKE AHEAD:  The salad without the pine nuts can be refrigerated overnight. Bring the salad to room temperature before serving and add the pine nuts.

Thyme-Scented Farro

Makes about 4 cups

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups farro (10 ounces)
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 2 thyme sprigs
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Directions:

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the farro and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly toasted; the grains will turn slightly opaque just before browning. Add the onion and thyme and cook over low heat, stirring, until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes.

Add the water and kosher salt and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over very low heat until the water is absorbed and the grains are tender. Fluff the grains and discard the thyme sprigs. 

MAKE AHEAD:  The cooked grains can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 1 month.

Italian Sesame Seed Cookies

Makes 3 – 4 dozen cookies                                                                                                                                                  

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon anise extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup scant sesame seeds

Directions

Preheat oven 350 degrees F. Grease 2 cookie sheets with cooking spray.

Place milk in a small bowl. Place sesame seeds in a small bowl.

Cream butter, sugar and brown sugar in an electric mixer bowl. Add eggs and vanilla, blend well.

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Add gradually to the creamed mixture, blending well.

Break off a small piece of dough and mold into a smooth ball in your hand.

Dip the top of the ball in milk and dip in sesame seeds.

Place on prepared cookie sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Bake for 15 minutes or until golden. Remove to wire racks to cool.



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