Monday, November 29, 2010

Nutty About Nuts

I love nuts.  Whole walnuts, freshly removed from their shells; boiled peanuts in Chinese soup; roasted chestnuts, hot from a street seller; the delicate fragrance of cashew butter—you name them, I love them.  Recently, a workmate introduced me to a new way of eating nuts, more specifically, eating raw almonds that have been soaked in water overnight.  Their texture becomes different, kind of springy rather than crunchy, and the skins just peel away effortlessly.  They taste sweeter too, without the mildly bitter brown skin.  I bet my parents would be able to make a really nice almond milk using these soaked and peeled almonds, creating a smooth and silky drink like their cashew milk, rather than their usual gritty almond milk.  The only thing I wonder about is whether I am missing out on valuable nutrients by not eating the skins, and not drinking the slightly cloudy water that I pour away.  For the refreshing flavour and texture combination though, I can definitely recommend trying this sometimes.

Natural almonds (left) and soaked and peeled almonds (right)

On the subject of nuts, and since it is getting close to Christmas time, I was wondering why those bags of unshelled nuts contain the nuts that they do, usually walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts and hazelnuts.  (As an aside, isn't English curious, since shelled nuts are the ones with the shells removed and unshelled nuts are the ones with the shells.  Also, apparently almonds, cashews, macadamias, peanuts, pistachios and some others are not true nuts in a botanical sense—in fact, only hazelnuts in my previous list would be classified as a nut.)  You can remove the shells of roasted peanuts and pistachios fairly easily, without special implements, while macadamias are probably not included in those bags of nuts because they would break your nutcracker rather than the other way round.  But why have I never seen a cashew nut in its shell?

It turns out that cashew nuts have a toxic shell.  And though I had never heard of it before, the fruit of a cashew tree, called the cashew apple, is actually edible, with a strong smell and sweet taste.  Some people even make alcohol from it!  Whatever next?

[Added 26 January 2011:

Tried to make my own almond milk the other day, after first blanching raw almonds in just-boiled water for one minute to remove the skins.  No matter how little water I added before blending the nuts, I couldn't seem to get a strong almond flavour, even after straining out the distracting gritty pulp.  Internet researched solved the mystery for me: the intense flavour from almond essence is actually produced from the oil of bitter almonds, not the sweet almonds you normally eat.  Eating bitter almonds could kill you though, as they contain amygdalin and the enzyme emulsin, which together in the presence of water produces cyanide.  I guess that's why I've never seen bitter almonds for sale in the supermarket!

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