In the Company of Nuts

I remember the moment when, as a new apprentice in a retreat center's vegetarian kitchen, I spotted the shelf of nuts in the storeroom. Fifty-pound boxes of walnut pieces, pecan halves, almonds, and a 40-pound tin of pine nuts from China waited in the dark coolness.

"Ah. If this is what being a vegetarian is, I will gladly never eat meat again," I said to myself.

In those days, and over the subsequent years, I have learned how nuts can play a star role in salads, main courses, and vegetable dishes, as well as in their usual place in chocolate chip cookies or cinnamon rolls.

Granted, nuts are expensive by the pound. But they go a long way, since they are used sparingly in most recipes. And they are a substitute for expensive meat protein.

Nuts are oily. But their fat is polyunsaturated, the "good kind" of fat. They contain large amounts of linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that is essential to human metabolism and has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Bet the diet books never told you that.

WHEN YOU THINK of nuts as a way to add richness, crunch, and interest to your cooking, endless possibilities arise. (I acknowledge that many children and some adults dislike finding nuts in their food, so I am mostly writing for those of us who like the earthy flavor and butteriness of nuts.) When walnuts are pan toasted, for instance, with garlic, onion, and black pepper, then added to cooked pasta (along with, perhaps, steamed broccoli or diced fresh tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil) no one will miss the sausage.

If you add toasted cashews to a chilled green pea salad or to stir-fried cabbage with soy sauce, all of a sudden you have a main course instead of a side dish. Offer a bowl of nuts at a salad bar or potato bar type of meal and the fare will seem gourmet. With roasted nuts stirred into bread stuffing, who needs turkey? Jello salad, homemade rice-a-roni, muffins-all benefit from the company of nuts.

It is a shame that pecans are associated for the most part with that caramelly, gooey, albeit wonderful dessert known as pecan pie. There are many more ways to use them, I discovered two years ago, when the pecan tree inside our fenceline yielded 80 pounds of nuts. I had 12 months to experiment with all the different ways a pecan can be eaten. (Hooked now, I've had to buy commercial pecans in those years when the tree produces enough only for the squirrels.) Pecans can be roasted with honey and served warm for a finger dessert. Mix them into banana bread batter, sprinkle on steamed green beans, or add to any casserole, candy, or cooked vegetable. And yes, they do indeed shine in pecan pie.

Although the average day in America doesn't call for a high calorie diet, there are a few times when a calorie-laden snack is desirable-hiking for example. In these cases, a handful of spicy roasted almonds or chocolate-dipped walnuts feel like modern manna, offering refreshment, quick energy, and staying power.

So don't bypass those nuts because you think they are bad for you, or are too expensive. They have more to offer than you think.

Nut Loaf That Fooled Joe Bujnoch

WELL, IT DIDN'T really fool him because he knew I wouldn't serve meat to his Catholic family on a Lenten Friday night. But this meat-loving Texan, who raises, butchers, and barbecues some of the tastiest beef in Lavaca County, actually asked for the recipe after he ate it. So I very confidently offer it to you. The bad news is that this takes an hour to prepare and another hour to bake. The good news is that it is well worth it.

  • 2 cups dried lentils (the brown, not red variety)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 cup diced carrot
  • 2 cups bread or cracker crumbs (or 1 cup crumbs plus 1 cup raw oatmeal or cooked rice)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup ketchup or canned tomato sauce plus more for the top
  • 1 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. prepared horseradish
  • 1 tsp. ground mustard
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • 2 tsp. oregano
  • 2 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder or 2-3 crushed fresh cloves
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 cup toasted pecans, chopped

Boil lentils with bay leaf in water until soft, about 45 minutes. Try to ration the cooking water so that there is very little liquid left. Meanwhile, chop and sauté until soft the onion, celery, and carrot. Dry bread cubes in the oven or crush up the crackers. Toast the pecans for 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

When all the above are ready, stir everything on the list together in a bowl with a wooden spoon or hand potato masher. Thoroughly grease one large or two small loaf pans and press mixture into all the corners. "Frost" loaf with more ketchup and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. It may take 10-20 minutes longer depending on how much liquid was in your lentils.

If you have the time, allow loaf to cool 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge and invert onto a serving plate. Otherwise just serve out of the pan. Garnish it with more ketchup and a sprig of parsley.

CAREY BURKETT, former assistant to the editor at Sojourners, is now an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.

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