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.