Super-healthy, super-tasty nuts are one of the most versatile ingredients in any cook’s bag of culinary tricks
Bang bang chicken platter. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Cherry and almond pannacotta. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Look away now if you’re allergic to all things nut-related, because this week’s column is all about these tiny nutritional powerhouses and the richness they can bring to food, both sweet and savoury.
Nuts are one of the most versatile ingredients in any cook’s bag of culinary tricks. When toasted and crumbled to use as a topping or garnish, they add crunch and texture. Some ground-up versions are also a useful substitute for flour when you want to thicken a sauce or bake a gluten-free cake. Attentive readers will know that last year this column featured a cake that used olive oil and ground almonds instead of butter and flour, and it’s still a firm favourite in this house when a dose of chocolate is required or a coeliac chocoholic (rather a lot them out there, it seems) is coming to dinner.
And then, of course, you have nut butters. Try peanut, almond or cashew butter on rye toast for a morning hit of protein to keep you going until lunchtime, or explore their versatility for sauces and dressings of the distinctly aromatic, Asian variety – excellent on finely shredded cabbage, say.
But one of the best things about nuts is their nutritional content, particularly if they’re au naturel and not roasted and salted. It’s good to know, for example, that much of their oft-touted fat content is of the healthy variety, while in terms of vitamins and minerals, they are prolific for something so small, containing quantities of some substances that can be tricky to consume otherwise in the recommended doses.
Put aside nutrition for a minute, though, and let’s focus on flavour. Nuts are super-tasty – partly because of their high fat content – and that tastiness is to the fore in this week’s recipes. In the panacotta, the subtle flavour of almonds combines with the sweet ’n’ sour hit of cherries to create an elegant pudding. My first attempt at this ended in disaster – I used far too much agar agar so the texture was more like rubber than the barely-there quiver of classic panacotta. A few tweaks, however, and I succeeded, and it was worth the effort.
The other dish is a real crowd-pleaser – a platter of tender poached chicken and crisp vegetables (I used cucumber, French beans and sugar-snap peas, but it’s up to you) that people can dip into a peanut-based satay sauce that simply explodes with flavour. It can claim to be pretty darned healthy too.
I also got to use the leftover chicken stock as a light broth for days afterwards. What’s not to love about that?