Monday, October 4, 2010

I had a little nut tree

WALNUTS LOOK like rotting crab apples. Or at least, ours do. For this reason and because of a mental image of huge, spreading branches and elephant-hide bark, we had no idea that the little tree along the garden fence line was Juglans regia, as those of a horticultural persuasion might greet it.

Thinking back to long car journeys up Interstate 5 in California however and I recall acre upon acre of 15-foot-high trees around the Bakersfield area, which locals identified as walnuts. No massive spreading branches there, but the region produces nearly all the walnuts sold in the USA and a good proportion of the world export market.

Our corner of the Le Marche landscape is far from going head to head with central California, but the tree did produce half a bucket of walnuts. The nut itself has a fleshy outer cover, which had blackened and cracked. Within this is the shell, which must be cracked to reveal the flesh within. In truth, some of our crop was a tad past it, but we managed to end up with a reasonable mound of brain-like nuts on the kitchen worktop. At this point all we had to do was come up with something to do with the damn things.

Procrastination is always a good idea, so I fired up a popular Internet search engine and keyed in “preserving walnuts”. You can do all sorts of things to this nut, including freezing, drying it and pickling it in spiced white vinegar. None of these appealed particularly, sounding either bland, weird or plain unpleasant. Then a vague and distant memory surfaced, of somebody many years ago telling of the pleasure to be found from walnuts preserved in honey. The Internet backed this up, in terms so glowing my mouth began to water. This would be, I reflected, the perfect local treat to set before my parents should they venture over here at Christmas.

Of course, yuletide is a few months off, while lunch should by rights be but minutes away. It was no good – some of the crop would have to be sacrificed on the altar of immediate gratification. I selected about eight nuts as victims and squirreled the rest away.  Quite what to do next, I had no real idea. I keyed the search engine once more, this time pulling out the nutritional virtues of walnut. It’s a bit of a powerhouse, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B1, 2, 3 and 6, the antioxidant ellagic acid and minerals such as manganese, copper, magnesium and phosphorous. You could weigh walnuts in for money at a scrapyard. You’d be better to eat them however, as it seems they are low in cholesterol, good for cardiovascular function and can help control fluctuations in blood sugar.

All this gave me plenty of leeway, so I pulled a mixture of vice and virtue from the fridge. On a plate went a healthy slew of sliced beetroot, balanced by a large bunch of rocket (iron, yet more metals, lots of antioxidant caratenoids, dietary fibre, vitamin C). Warm, sliced potatoes would accompany this nicely, I reckoned. Especially after boiling, frying up in olive oil and passing through the oven coated in salt, Parmesan and the oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes (dietary starch, lard). The unhealthy slacker team still needed bolstering, so once the skillet was empty of spuds it received more olive oil. In this I soft-fried onion and thin slices of red pepper. I turned up the heat for a while and threw in balsamic vinegar (antioxidants, apparently), to boil quickly and sweeten the vegetables.

Because it was there, I added a little Hendersons Relish to this. There is an awful lot of hot air blown forth, especially in its home city of Sheffield (UK), about the unassailable superiority of this spicy sauce. Steel City bigots take note: Hendo’s is neither better nor worse than its rival Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. It’s just a little different – a little heavier and less spicy, to be precise. As I grew up in Worcestershire and then transferred to Sheffield for quite some time, I have both on the shelf. I used the northern relish today because it was nearer to me on the shelf.

Besides, I was too busy considering what music to play as I cooked. Low-fi and laid-back would suit the mood, I decided, firing up the excellent It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water by The Microphones (K Records, Washington DC, USA). Perfect.

The balsamic and relish left a little moisture, so I threw in just a spoonful of tomato passata to enrich things. Then I cut the rind from a tag end of a sweet Gorgonzola that’s plentifully available here (sodium, protein, more lard) to leave the tangy inner. Any soft blue cheese would do just fine. It melted into the pan to turn the pepper and onion into a luscious, creamy sauce which I added chopped walnuts to, then lobbed onto the plate between the saladstuffs to remind them not to be so smug.

All in all this was an excellent lunch and a fine way to begin a tour of ways to enjoy walnuts. Once the shops open late this afternoon I shall take a much-needed constitutional in the direction of the supermarket, and buy a few jars of honey.

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