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Cooking with Nuts for the Holidays

By Ann Hattes
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Smooth, crunchy, savory and sweet –  nuts and seeds add unexpected texture and flavor to your holiday entertaining from nibbles and dips to sauces, soups and grand finales.

Nuts and seeds are some of the most nutritious ingredients in the kitchen as well as enormously versatile. Sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts and more make for natural ingredients in everything from pasta to salads to steak. In A Nutshell: Cooking and Baking with Nuts and Seeds (W.W. Norton & Company), a how-to guide on using nuts and seeds in the kitchen, offers home cooks recipes for preparing everything from simple afternoon snacks to delicious family dinners and desserts.

“Nut Profiles” at the beginning of the book give a breakdown of each of the 16 nuts and seeds – how they are commonly used in the kitchen; the best way to store and keep them fresh; where they are traditionally harvested; and their nutritional benefits. Readers learn, for example, that adding 1.5 ounces of walnuts to your daily diet reduces the risk of heart disease, and even nuts with higher fat content, like Brazil nuts and hazelnuts, are believed to lower LDL cholesterol.

The “Nuts and Bolts” sections at the beginning of each chapter walk readers through the basic methods for enlivening soups, salads, fish, meat, and vegetable dishes. A pan-seared hanger steak, for example, is left to simmer in soy sauce, chilies, scallions, and chopped peanuts.

The book’s authors, professional caterers and longtime instructors Cara Tannenbaum and Andrea Tutunjian, offer recipes carefully crafted from years in the kitchen. They point readers toward easy-to-pick-up ideas that will reinvent the classic dishes they already love, such as Crunchy Coconut Shrimp and Almond Crusted Mac-and-Cheese. They also offer vegan and vegetarian dishes like Farro Chickpea Salad and Red Lentil Cashew Sliders. For dessert there’s White Chocolate Orange Almond Bark, Pecan Sandies, and Pumpkin Seed Spice Cake.

Smooth, crunchy, savory and sweet –  nuts and seeds add unexpected texture and flavor to your holiday entertaining from nibbles and dips to sauces, soups and grand finales.

Bourbon Pecans

(Courtesy W.W. Norton, In A Nutshell). Prep time: 5 minutes. Cooking time: 10 minutes. Makes 3 cups.


½ cup sugar

½ cup bourbon

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

3 cups (12 ounces) pecan halves, toasted

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon kosher salt


Mix the sugar, bourbon, corn syrup, and pecans in a medium saucepan. Cook them over medium heat, stirring constantly with a spoon or a heat-proof spatula. When the mixture begins to boil, the evaporating bourbon will have a sweet, deep, oaky aroma. As the mixture cooks, the bubbles will pop more slowly and eventually most of the liquid will evaporate. The sugar will caramelize and stick to the nuts. This whole process takes about 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the red pepper flakes and salt while the nuts are still hot. Have ready a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper and lightly coated with nonstick spray. Transfer the nuts to the prepared pan. Pull them apart with a fork while still warm and then cool completely. Store pecans in an airtight container for up to a week. The rich bourbon pecans taste great when paired with an extra-sharp cheddar cheese or a bit milder-aged Gouda.


Crab Coconut Dip

(Courtesy of W.W. Norton, In A Nutshell). Prep time: 20 minutes plus 2 hours to chill. Makes 3 cups.


½ pound cream cheese (room temperature), softened and cut into 6 pieces

¼ cup unsweetened coconut milk

2 tablespoons freshly chopped chives

1 tablespoon freshly chopped mint

1 pound fresh lump crabmeat

¾ cup (2 & ¼ ounces) unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For serving:

Snow peas, strings removed


In the bowl of a food processor, puree the cream cheese, coconut milk, chives and mint until smooth, about 1 minute. Stop the processor and scrape down the sides using a rubber spatula once or twice, to ensure even mixing.

Break up the crabmeat in a large bowl, making sure there are no remaining bits of cartilage or shell. It is best to do this with your hands, but try to keep the chunks of crab intact. Mix well with the coconut. Gently stir in the cream cheese-coconut mixture and season with the salt and pepper.

Chill the dip until firm, at least 2 hours or up to 3 days in a well-sealed container.


Spinach, Potato, and Pistachio Soup

(Courtesy of W. W. Norton, In A Nutshell). Prep time: 20 minutes. Cooking time: 35 minutes. Makes 12 cups.


2 tablespoons unsalted butter (If planning to serve it chilled rather than hot, use 2 tablespoons olive oil instead of butter for a smoother texture).

3 ribs celery, chopped

2 medium onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

3 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground

½ teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 pounds all-purpose potatoes, peeled and chopped

8 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock

2 cups (10 ounces) coarsely chopped pistachios, toasted

1 pound baby spinach, washed

1 & ½ cups plain Greek yogurt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper


Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until foaming. Add the celery, onions, garlic, cumin, coriander, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent and beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.

Add the potatoes, stock, and 1 & ¾ cups pistachios. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat until the liquid is simmering. Cook for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Remove the soup from the heat and drop in the spinach. The heat from the soup is enough to cook the spinach.

With a handheld or standard blender puree the soup until very smooth. Whisk in 1 cup yogurt, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and the pepper.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls. Spoon a little of the remaining ½ cup yogurt onto each serving and scatter some of the remaining ¼ cup chopped pistachios on top. Store any cooled leftovers in a covered airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. If you are reheating leftover soup, do not boil. Be sure to use gentle heat to prevent the yogurt from curdling and the spinach from overcooking.

Both the potatoes and pistachios are thickeners here. If the soup is refrigerated overnight and you find it too thick, add a little more stock until you reach the desired consistency.


Hazelnut-Olive Oil Ring

(Courtesy of W.W. Norton, In A Nutshell). Prep time: 20 minutes. Baking time: 35 minutes.

Makes: One 10-inch cake, 10 to 12 servings. Equipment: One 10-inch tube pan, lightly buttered and floured.


Without butter and cream, the moistness is provided by the oil and nuts.

1 & ¼ cups (4 & ½ ounces) hazelnut flour or finely ground hazelnuts

1 & ¾ cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for finishing

¼ teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup mild olive oil (not extra-virgin with its bold flavor which would overpower the nuts)

½ cup Frangelico or other hazelnut liqueur


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the hazelnut flour or ground hazelnuts in a bowl. Sift the all-purpose flour, ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, baking powder, and salt over the hazelnut flour and stir to mix well.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, whisk the eggs on medium speed until they are frothy, about 3 minutes. With mixer running, add the granulated sugar a little at a time and whip for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the eggs have lightened and thickened.

Fold the flour-hazelnut mixture into the egg mixture in 2 or 3 additions, using a rubber spatula and scraping the sides of the bowl as you fold. Stir the olive oil and Frangelico into the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan and springs back when pressed lightly, about 35 minutes.

Unmold the cake immediately. Carefully slide a sharp knife or spatula around the sides of the cake and then invert the pan onto a cooling rack. Dust it lightly with confectioners’ sugar and serve at room temperature. It can be served as a simple angel food cake topped with fresh berries or poached fall fruit.


Ann Hattes has over 25 years experience writing about both travel and food for publications both in the US and internationally. A senior living in Wisconsin, she’s a member of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association and the Midwest Travel Writers Association.

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