Nuts deserve more respect. Not only do they taste great, they’re an excellent source of protein, fiber, omega-3 and antioxidants. Researchers contend a diet that includes nuts on a regular basis lowers the risk of heart disease.
With all these health benefits, shouldn’t we find more ways to get nuts into our diet than consuming them by the handful at cocktail parties?
An easy way to incorporate nuts into meals is to use nut butter in recipes. Beyond the jar of peanut butter in the pantry, there is a range of nut butters with fantastic flavor. Best of all, with recipes that taste so good, no one suspects there are health benefits!
Almond and cashew butter have found a place near the peanut butter at the grocery store, but it is easy to make nut butter at home from any variety of nut. (Strictly speaking, by the way, peanuts are legumes, not nuts.) The added benefit of making nut butter yourself is you control the ingredients: no need to add oil, sugar, or salt unless you want to.
To make nut butter, simply toss one cup of any variety of nut into the food processor and grind to a paste. For a richer, nuttier flavor, start by toasting the nuts on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, or until they are fragrant and lightly browned. Cool nuts before processing; a cup of nuts yields about a half-cup of butter. Store the nut butter in the refrigerator where it will stay fresh-tasting for about a month. Return it to room temperature to soften before you use it.
The consistency of the nut butter will vary depending on the amount of fat in the nuts. Cashew and macadamia nuts have high fat content, so the nut butters are the creamiest, while homemade hazelnut and peanut butters are grainy because of a lower fat content. Water or bland oil, such as canola oil, can be added to make your nut butter more spreadable.
Nut butter is a versatile ingredient. Not only can it be spread on bread or pitas for a sandwich, it can be substituted for peanuts in your favorite Oriental peanut sauce or cookie recipes. But it really shines as a subtle background flavor in sauces, vegetables and appetizers.
In sauces, nut butter is a great substitute for cream because it thickens as well as flavors. Here are two examples:
■ Sauté boneless chicken or pork cutlets seasoned with salt and pepper in olive oil. Remove from pan and keep warm. Soften two tablespoons of finely chopped onion or shallot in the same pan along with some sliced mushrooms, adding more oil if necessary. Deglaze the pan with two tablespoons of white wine, then stir in ¼ cup of almond, pecan or walnut butter mixed with ¼ cup of water. Whisk over low heat until thickened, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve over the meat.
■ For an interesting vegetable dish, try tossing cauliflower cooked al dente with a mixture of ½ cup cashew butter, two tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons curry powder, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Spread on a baking sheet and broil until golden brown on edges.
Some sophisticated appetizer recipes featuring nut butters will serve as a different take on a traditional snack at your next cocktail party. No one will miss the bowl of nuts.
Maple Leaf Farms precooked duck breast (available at Publix and Sweet Bay) makes preparing this elegant appetizer very easy.
You can substitute cooked turkey thigh meat.
Don’t use cranberry sauce in this recipe; you want a chunky tart-sweet compote, such as the one made by Stonewall Kitchens.
I used Crofter’s brand Superfruit Spread, which contains cherries, grapes and cranberries, and very little sugar.
DUCK-AND-ALMOND FLAT BREADS
Makes about 20 appetizers
1 cooked duck breast, thinly sliced
½ cup almond butter
Cranberry chutney or superfruit spread
Whole wheat naan or flat bread
1 Cut flatbread into 2-inch triangles.
2 Toast on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 5-8 minutes.
3 Spread each triangle with almond butter.
4 Top with a piece of duck breast and return to oven to warm, about 3 minutes.
5 Garnish with about a teaspoon of chutney.
1 McIntosh or Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced
½ cup pecan or cashew butter
2-3 tablespoons hot pepper jelly or jam
1 To make crostini, slice baguette into ¼-inch slices. Drizzle both sides with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and place on baking sheet.
2 Bake in 350-degree oven for 5 minutes, then flip each piece and continue baking 5 minutes or until golden brown.
3 Spread each crostini with a thin layer of nut butter. Top with two slices of apple and a dollop of pepper jelly. Serve.
FIG-AND-BLUE CHEESE BITES
Walnuts, blue cheese and figs are a classic combination, but this presentation is both tasty and elegant. Makes 12 pieces.
3 fresh figs
2 tablespoons walnut butter
¼ cup blue cheese crumbles
2 ounces softened cream cheese
1-2 tablespoons milk or cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Chopped walnuts for garnish
1 Remove stems from figs and cut each fig lengthwise into quarters.
2 Mix nut butter and cheeses and add milk or cream as needed until mixture holds together.
3 Season with salt and pepper.
4 Put about a teaspoon of cheese mixture on top of each fig piece and garnish with a chopped walnut.