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(article, Megan Holden)
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My husband is nuts for nuts. When he gets his hands on a bag of tamari almonds or a tub of mixed nuts, he can‘t stop himself. He eats them for the crunch, salt, flavor, and satiety they provide.
But he’s also getting enormous health benefits with each mouthful. Consuming just 1 1/2 ounces of nuts a day — that’s a couple of small handfuls — may help reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Nuts contain antioxidants, including magnesium, selenium, and vitamin E, which protect immune function and prevent oxidative damage to cells. They’re also full of phytochemicals, such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and phenolic acids, which may have health-promoting effects. And they’re an excellent source of monounsaturated fat, protein, and fiber.
Despite the enticing health news about nuts, many people are still reluctant to eat them. Nuts fell out of favor back in the 1980s, when the low-fat, low-calorie lifestyle became all the rage. But nuts’ fat and protein take the edge off your hunger; in fact, you might end up eating fewer calories overall if your diet includes a daily handful of nuts.
Here are some tips for keeping your kitchen stocked and ready with fresh, meaty nuts.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Hazelnuts are mechanically harvested."] Before they hit your grocer’s shelf, tree nuts must first be harvested. While there are some differences between varieties in the United States, most almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, and pecans are harvested mechanically. A knocker shakes the tree, causing the nuts to fall to the ground. A mechanical sweeper places the nuts in windrows before machines gather and transport the crops. Most nuts are then hulled, dried, and stored at a controlled temperature. Finally, nuts are shelled, graded, and processed.
Throughout this chain, food safety is an issue for nut growers. Almonds, for example, are treated to eradicate salmonella: non-organic almonds are fumigated, while organic almonds are steam-heat pasteurized. Pistachio growers, meanwhile, test for aflatoxin, a cancer-causing mold sometimes found in nuts. (And of course, as the recent salmonella outbreak in peanuts reminded us, nuts can be contaminated in factories after harvesting, too.)
Cashews are an exception to this mechanization. Most cashews are grown in India, Vietnam, and Africa, where farming and roasting often relies on small producers working in sometimes appalling situations. Cashews have become more common in American and European grocery stores in the past decade, but labor conditions for cashew workers have not improved much.
The fat that makes a nut explode on the tongue is also what makes it difficult to buy and store. Nuts can turn rancid quickly, especially if stored improperly. Pecans and walnuts are the most prone to spoilage, while cashews and almonds are the least. Pine nuts are even less stable than tree nuts because of their high oil content. (Although pine nuts are technically a seed, I’ve included them because I use them extensively as a nut substitute when I cook.)
When purchasing, select nuts that look crisp and plump. Avoid nuts that appear shriveled, rubbery, and limp, all of which signify poor quality. Nuts in the shell cost less and have a longer shelf life. When buying in the shell, steer clear of splits, cracks, and holes. The shell should feel heavy for its size; this indicates a fleshy kernel. And give the nut a shake: if you hear a rattle, it’s stale.
h1. Nut info
[%bookLink code=0486434990 "The Book of Edible Nuts "], by Frederic Rosengarten
[%bookLink code=0312266243 "Nuts: Recipes from Around the World That Feature Nature's Perfect Ingredient"],_ by Linda and Fred Griffith
The Nut Talk blog
Keep in mind that processing reduces shelf life. So if you like the convenience of walnut bits or the flavor of spicy pecans, be vigilant about proper storage and buy in small quantities. Finally, be sure to read the best-buy date and follow any optimum freshness advice on the packaging.
Shoppers should consider two factors when buying nuts: how quickly they’ll be used (which determines purchasing quantity) and how fast the store turns over its products (which determines purchasing location). If you know that you’ll be eating a handful of cashews daily, it’s OK to buy them in larger quantities. If you’re purchasing nuts for occasional baking or that are already processed, consider buying smaller amounts, even if the price for larger quantities looks tempting.
You can guarantee freshness by buying from a store with high product turnover. If you’re not sure, ask the person stocking the shelves or bulk bins how rapidly they sell their nuts. Most big-box retailers are large-volume stores where tree-nut products are turned over about every two weeks, assuring freshness. I buy my pine nuts from Costco, which has strict quality-control specifications and conducts monthly audits of all of its tree-nut and pine-nut suppliers.
Other sources include farmers’ markets and online retailers who crack and sell nuts to order. I discovered my favorite hazelnut grower, Freddy Guys, at the Portland Farmers’ Market. When I switched to a different market, I was able to keep buying farm-direct via the Web.
[%image almonds float=left width=400 caption="Light, heat, and moisture are the enemies of nuts."]
Light, heat, and moisture are the enemies of nuts. Whether cracked or in the shell, you want to store nuts in opaque, airtight containers. The opacity protects from fluorescent and natural light, while a tight seal reduces the absorption of moisture and odors.
Even in airtight containers, however, nuts will last only a few weeks when stored at room temperature. But if you buy your nuts in sealed jars or cans, instead of in bulk, you've got about three months before you need to crack that jar open and eat the nuts. Once opened, a package of shelled nuts kept at room temperature will stay edible for about two or three weeks; unshelled nuts should last about four months.
Prolong shelf life by keeping your containers of nuts in the fridge — or, even better, in the freezer. The cold keeps the nut’s oil more stable. And if you’re going to toast, bake, or cook with them, you can use them frozen with terrific results. The same storage rules apply to in-shell as shelled nuts: store in a cool, dry, dark place.
Take a look in your pantry. If you find a package of nuts that’s been sitting around for longer than a few months, toss it and start anew. A good rule of thumb is that nuts will keep for four months in the refrigerator and eight months in the freezer.
h3. One last caveat
[%image nuts float=right width=400 caption="Clockwise from top: Almonds, pecans, and walnuts are just a few of the healthy, tasty tree nuts available in markets."] Tree nuts can spark allergic reaction, from wheezing and sneezing to difficulty in breathing, hives, and stomach cramping. At their worst, tree-nut allergens can be fatal, triggering anaphylactic shock. Most people who are allergic to nuts already know it and keep their distance. But as a mother of a child who almost died from eating a cashew, I recommend that you be careful when you serve food that contains nuts. You never know who might be sitting at your table with a tree-nut allergy.
p(bio). Megan Holden* invariably burns her pine nuts when toasting them. She writes about food from Portland, Oregon.