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10 december 2015

Just as in his wonderful Pancake for the Reaktion Edible series, Ken Albala spends some time at the start of Nuts defining a nut. Not too much, because he basically gives up and accepts the ordinary-language definition, which is very straightforward and highly unbotanical.

Albala does draw the line at peanuts. The most popular of American nuts is a legume, of course, and I guess it will need to wait for its own Edible book. Peanuts are obviously beans in pods, in one respect, and evidently nuts in another (hard shell, crunchy meat). Botanically they fail in several ways, among them the fact that, cheap though they are, they don't grow on trees. But I digress, because there aren't any peanuts in Nuts.

The classic American tin of mixed party nuts might contain no botanical nuts at all. If it's peanuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts, and pistachios, it doesn't even get close: the first is a legume, the next two are odd parts of fruits, and the latter three are the seeds of drupes, fleshy fruits that conceal an edible pit in a shell. Pecans, for instance (I'm typing this in the shade of one) drop nuts in the fall that look pretty nutlike, but earlier in the season they drop heavy, soft green fruit that matures by drying, blackening, and thinning, eventually releasing a kernel. The closest the traditional mix might get to botanical nuts is the occasional filbert. Filberts (hazelnuts), chestnuts, and acorns are true nuts, because they grow exposed in their shells directly on their trees. The American diet doesn't contain much of any of them unless you are really into Nutella.

Thankfully, Albala doesn't let precision overwhelm his entertaining treatment of nuts worldwide. He even includes the coconut (another drupe). He includes water caltrops, which are the seed pods of a kind of water lily and on the surface look a bit like the food of Cthulhu, though they are nutty and delicious inside. Pine nut, ginkgo, betel, kola, and many other nuts make appearances, though most of the minor nuts rarely appear outside of their regions. (We have ginkgo trees in the back yard, too, but they are males and thus not fruit-bearing; the fruits are notoriously horrible and must be thoroughly processed to reveal a completely delicious nut at the center.) Macadamia nuts, native to tropical Australia but now a signature crop in Hawaii, are said to be the hardest nut to crack, resistant even to sledgehammer blows. Albala never does say how they manage to crack them.

Albala extols cooking with nuts. He has limited space for recipes but includes an adaptation of a West African chicken stew that uses almond butter and a recipe for smoked pork chops with pecans. He notes the long Western and near-Eastern fascination with almond milk, which is no recent foodie invention. It is the basis for the standard medieval dish blancmange, which Albala discusses at length. He is also a fan of dukkah and charoset, the middle-eastern nut dips that are among the simplest and most elegant of nut preparations.

And of course Albala discusses pestos, which are at their best laboriously pounded in a mortar. The classic pine-nut pesto is very expensive to make, and walnuts are an excellent alternative. (So are almonds, the basis of trapanese pesto.) When you live in the shade of a pecan tree, you begin to substitute pecans for everything, which really brings out the culinary similarities among these various nuts and drupes and seeds and legumes. Most people do not have the resources to attempt pecan butter or pecan pesto, but if you do you will not be disappointed.

Albala, Ken. Nuts: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.