Be it peanut butter or an almond fudge; hazelnuts coated in chocolate or a Choco-walnut cookie; nuts often form the heart of many dishes be it savory or a dessert. Though the botanical definition of a nut has a vivid criteria for categorization, yet in culinary terms, a nut is any large, oily kernel found within a shell and used in food.
Nuts are rich in a variety of nutrients. Often suggested as a healthy snack option, these are packed with rich energy sources and many other nutrients. Because of the high oil content, they are an excellent source of high instant energy and even make you feel full after a handful is consumed. Nuts boast of a nutritional value loaded with monounsaturated-fatty acids (MUF) such as oleic and palmitoleic acids, which aid in lowering “bad cholesterol” and increase “good cholesterol.” They are rich source of all important omega-3 essential fatty acids which have an anti-inflammatory action and thus help in lowering the risk of blood pressure, coronary artery disease, strokes and breast, colon and prostate cancers. Another nutrient that these small wonders are loaded with are health benefiting poly-phenolic flavonoid antioxidants such as carotenes, resveratrol etc. This makes nuts an excellent choice for protection against cancers, heart disease, degenerative nerve disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and viral/ fungal infections. In addition to calories, nuts contain high levels of vitamins and essential minerals such as manganese, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc etc. They also have a good level of Vitamin E and Vitamin B complex which aid in cell building and overall health development. Thus we see that nuts are actually a complete food with a very balanced nutritional chart to their credit.
Though most of us are familiar with many nuts that are commonly used in our kitchens, like the almonds, pistachios or even the humble peanuts, there are many other members of the nut-family which not all of us know.
Here are some exotic nuts that are used for a variety of purposes all over the world.
The word ‘pecan’ is derived from an Algonquian word which means a nut requiring a stone to crack. It is a species of hickory that is natively grown in south-central North America. The parent tree is a deciduous tree that grows up to 20–40 m in height. A pecan, like the fruit of all other members of its genus, is not really a nut. It is technically a drupe i.e a fruit with a single stone or pit, surrounded by a husk.
The seeds of the pecan have a rich, buttery flavor. They can be eaten fresh or used in cooking, often in desserts. One of the most common desserts with the pecan as major ingredient is the pecan pie, a traditional U.S. recipe. Pecans also form a core ingredient in praline candy.
Pecans are rich in manganese and also serve as an excellent source of protein and unsaturated fats. Pecans also contain a significant amount of omega-6 fatty acids like walnuts.
In addition to the seed, the wood from the tree is also used extensively in making furniture and wooden flooring. It is as well used as a flavoring fuel for smoking meats.
Pecans were originally harvested as a domestic crop. After the commercial cultivation of this crop started in late 1880s, U.S. has now become the leading producer with around 90 percent of the produce coming from there. San Saba in Texas is commonly known as “The Pecan Capital of the World”.
Chestnuts are again an edible nut obtained from the deciduous tree from the Castanea genus. It is a native from the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The name “Chestnut” is derived from an older English term “Chesten nut”, which actually is obtained from the Old French word “chastain”. There are four main species viz. the European, Chinese, Japanese and American chestnuts.
A chestnut can either be peeled directly to be eaten raw or be roasted and then consumed. When cooked slightly, the taste resembles that of a baked potato. There are many other ways to use this nut for culinary purposes. Chestnuts can also be dried and milled into flour, which can later be used to make processed food items like breads, cakes, pancakes, and pastas. Candied chestnuts are a common delicacy in France and Turkey. Many cultures also enjoy desserts with pureed chestnuts and sugar with whipped cream.
Chestnut wood contains many tannins, as it belongs to the same family as oak. This makes the wood very durable besides giving it excellent natural outdoor resistance. It also saves the need for any other protection treatment. The dry chestnut firewood also serves a good fuel option. It is also an excellent source of tannin and provides an excellent source of tanning leather.
Fresh chestnuts contain a significant amount of calories in the form of carbohydrates with almost no fast. Besides a vast source of sugars, they are the only nuts that provide Vitamin C. The quantity of Vitamin C in chestnuts reduces by 40 percent when heated.
A hazelnut is the nut of the hazel and is also called a cobnut or filbert nut. Hazelnuts are extensively cultivated in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Italy, Greece and Georgia, for commercial reasons. They are also grown in the south of the Spanish region of Catalonia and in the American states of Oregon and Washington. Turkey is the largest producer of hazelnuts in the world.
Hazelnuts are widely used in confectionery to make pralines, chocolate truffles, and also in a variety of hazelnut paste products. In Austria, hazelnut paste is an important ingredient in the making of tortes. In a Kiev cake, the meringue body is flavored using hazelnut flour, and crushed hazelnuts are sprinkled over its sides.
Hazelnuts are rich in protein and unsaturated fat. They also boast of a significant amount of thiamine and vitamin B6, along with smaller amounts of other B vitamins.
So, these few nuts are among the many others like the Brazil Nut, the acorns, the Oak Nut and so on, which not only have a distinct flavor but are also used widely for many other purposes. With an excellent nutrient value, they form a delightful ingredient. Besides, it is always good to explore food, isn’t it?