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Healthy Nuts

I must admit that I knew nothing about nuts when I was a child. Outside of peanut butter, which is actually not a nut but rather a legume, the only time there were nuts in the house was during the holidays. But cracking their hard outer shells with a less than adequate nutcracker proved nearly impossible for my young hands.

Then I discovered pecan pie, with its distinctively rich and slightly sweet flavor, and began cracking the nut case on nut characteristics and culinary uses. Great taste aside, nuts also provide nutrient-rich sources of energy, dietary fiber, plant protein, and several essential vitamins and minerals. What’s more, nuts contain a host of heart-healthy oils, including essential fatty acids (EFAs).

As for culinary characteristics, almonds are among the most versatile and can be used in just about any dish from breakfast to dinner and appetizers to desserts. They have a milky-smooth flavor, delicate texture, and sweet aftertaste.

Cashews have a buttery-texture and combine well with chocolate, seafood, mushrooms, creamy sauces, hot peppers and curry dishes.

Walnuts are rich and hearty with an earthy taste that goes well in a variety of sweet and savory dishes as well as baked goods and desserts–especially desserts featuring apples or pears.

Pecans are somewhat buttery in texture with a distinctively rich and slightly sweet flavor. Sauté the nuts in butter and use as a tasty topping for baked potatoes or vegetable dishes. When finely chopped, they make a delicious coating for chicken, fish, or pork. And they are all-stars in bakery or confectionery foods, such as Mexican wedding cakes and, of course, pecan pie.

Filberts and hazelnuts are another nut with sweet and mildly rich flavor, and a lot of crunch. Use chopped in fruit salads, stuffing, dressings, baked goods, pastries, and candies. This is also my preferred nut for sprinkling over creamy soups.

Depending on where you live, some of these tree nuts can be grown in your backyard. But there’s no need to wait years to harvest nuts when you can shop your local Kmart or at their online store (www.kmart.com) and buy some nuts now. After all, it’s always good to go a little nuts at times.

Here’s a few nuggets on storing and cooking with nuts.

- Whole nuts in the shell keep best when stored in a cool, dry location. For longer storage up to two years or more, store whole, unshelled nuts in an airtight container in the freezer.

- To preserve freshness and keep nuts from becoming rancid, store shelled nuts in an airtight container in the refrigerator (up to six months) or in the freezer (up to a year).

- When adding nuts to baked goods, blend nuts right into the flour mixture or sprinkle nuts on top of the batter before baking.

- Toasting intensifies the flavor and crunch of most nuts. Dry toasting is easy to do, either in a skillet over low-medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, or toast on a baking sheet in a 300 degree oven for 5 to 15 minutes. Stir frequently to avoid over-browning.

FEATURED RECIPE: Pecan-Pear Tartlets

A standard 4 or 6-inch tartlet pan has a removable bottom so the tartlet can easily be unmolded. You can find them at your Kmart online store (http://www.kmart.com/perfect-results-tart-quiche-pans-4inch-6-pkg-round/p-021V005126495000P?prdNo=2).

A 12-cup muffin pan can serve as a substitute if you don’t have a tartlet pan. In this case, divide the dough into 12 balls, pressing each ball onto bottom and sides of an ungreased cup. Bake at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes.

Crust:

1/2 cup butter, softened

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon cold water

Filling:

1 cup peeled and diced pears

1 cup chopped pecans

2 eggs

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup brown sugar

Cream together the butter and cream cheese until blended. Stir in flour and cinnamon with a fork until mixture resembles crumbs. Add cold water and stir until dough forms a rough ball. Cover and chill dough for about one hour. Divide chilled pastry into six sections (or however many sections you need to fill your tart pans). Place each section in an ungreased tartlet pan; press dough onto bottom and sides with floured fingertips.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spoon a generous 2 1/2 tablespoons of the diced pears and about 1 tablespoon chopped pecans into each prepared tartlet shell. In a small bowl, stir together the eggs, butter, and vanilla. Add in brown sugar and mix until well blended. Fill each tartlet pan with egg mixture.

Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes or until set. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before removing from pans. Makes six (6-inch) tartlets.

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  1. Thank you so much for writing this. Your tips on how to store nuts and suggestions for use in the kitchen are great. I will be trying several of your tips, including freezing my nuts and then toasting them for use on salads and stir-fries. Can't wait to try the Pecan Pear Tartlets--they look so delicious in the photo!

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