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It's Crunch Time for Nuts

Walnut flavor figures in the carrot cake and frosting.
Walnut flavor figures in the carrot cake and frosting. (Photos Above And Below Right By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

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By Elinor Klivans
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

It's time to shake the trees, gather the nuts and crack those shells.

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[Recipes: Apricot-Pecan Corn Muffins, Endive Salad With Dijon Dressing and Honey Pistachios and Walnut Carrot Cake Squares With Cream Cheese Frosting]

Of course, most of the gathering will occur far from the original sources. The annual U.S. nut harvest begins this month and will last until December, depending on weather conditions. You could start squirreling away a fresh year's supply, but what's the best way to buy the best quality at the best price? Is it:

a) Dated, sealed containers and packages in the grocery store.

b) In bulk from plastic bins.

c) Mail order, by phone or the Internet.

For most home cooks, a) is the best choice. Packaged nuts might cost more, but the protective containers will keep the nuts fresher, so you'll save money by preventing waste. And the use-by dates give you an idea of how old they are. Avoid those large plastic bins; although sealed against insects, they expose nuts to air over time, increasing the risk that the nuts' oil will become rancid. It is difficult to know how long nuts in self-service bins have been stored; tasting in stores is discouraged. And rancid nuts are not salvageable.

If you use nuts in large quantities, as I do, go with mail order from a specialty nut company. Their products usually are of a consistently high quality. Several reliable companies that I have tried over the years are listed below.

When store shelves or produce departments suddenly become stacked with nuts, it's a signal that the new crop has arrived. If you are mail-ordering from a specialty nut company, ask if the new crop of a specific nut is available. Walnuts often are the first nuts to be harvested, and pecans are among the last. Black walnuts, which have a strong, rich, almost smoky flavor, are harvested later than English walnuts. If you are lucky enough to have access to a black walnut tree, it is a great way to experience these uncommon nuts. Directions for removing them from their green "tennis ball" husk, drying them and freeing the nutmeat from the inner shell are easily available online.

If properly stored, fresh nuts can be kept in prime condition for up to a year. Nuts can be stored for a month in the refrigerator, but the freezer is best for the long term. The cold helps prevent nuts from turning rancid, which would affect their flavor. For refrigerator or freezer storage, pack nuts in tightly sealed, labeled containers or in heavy-duty resealable plastic food storage bags. That will keep out air and odors, both of which can create an off taste. Bring nuts to room temperature before using them in recipes; their coldness might affect cooking and baking times. Once the nuts are defrosted, discard any that are black or wrinkled. Pecan halves may have small pieces of a bitter shell-like substance attached; it should be removed and discarded.

Toasting nuts intensifies their flavor and in some cases actually changes the taste. Walnuts and pecans can be toasted to enhance their flavor; toasted almonds and toasted, skinned hazelnuts become sweeter. Pistachios usually have been roasted (see the tips about toasting nuts, at right).

Here are my favorite mail-order sources for nuts:

¿ Sunnyland Farms in Albany, Ga. (800-999-2488, http://www.sunnylandfarms.com), has a large selection of nuts, including black walnuts.

¿ Buchanan Hollow Nut Co. of Le Grand, Calif. (800-532-1500, http://www.bhnc.com), has a large selection, including pistachios in bulk and organic almonds.

¿ Joe C. Williams Pecans of Camden, Ala. (800-967-3226, http://www.joecwilliams.com), ships pecans in many forms.

Elinor Klivans's most recent book is "Potpies: Yumminess in a Dish" (Chronicle, 2006).


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