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A Tasty Shell Game

September 08, 1985|BETSY BALSLEY

When it comes to providing food with a nice, flavorful "crunch," nothing works better than nuts. And when it comes to growing nuts, nowhere has it been done with more success than in California--the only state in the Union where almonds are grown commercially. And only recently, California moved into the No. 2 spot (Iran is still in first place) in the commercial production of pistachios worldwide. That in spite of the fact that growing pistachios commercially on a large-scale basis is a relatively new undertaking in this country. Walnuts, on the other hand, have been a major agricultural crop for a number of years, and macadamias from California are also becoming a harvest crop to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, unless harvested nuts are properly cared for, they tend to lose the crispness that makes them so popular. Nuts still in the shell, of course, keep better than shelled nut meats. If unshelled nuts are stored in a cool, dry place, they will remain crispy and edible for about a year. On the other hand, shelled nuts deteriorate fairly rapidly when they're exposed to air. To keep shelled nuts crisp and ready for use, pop them into airtight plastic bags or containers and store them in the refrigerator or, preferably, the freezer. They'll stay fresh, sweet, and yes, crunchy, for a year or more when they're frozen, and they'll hold well for six to nine months in the refrigerator. Even outside a refrigerator, shelled nuts will stay pristine for two to three months if kept in a well-sealed container at room temperature.

Though most types of nuts make wonderful snacks simply when they are lightly roasted and salted, they often taste even better when various spices are added for seasoning. Freshly roasted pecans or walnuts sprinkled with a small amount of garlic or chili powder are almost irresistible to snackers, as are almonds after having been seasoned with liquid smoke.

In salads and cooked dishes, nuts can provide both a touch of texture and their own subtle flavor. Chopped pistachios, for instance, complement the bland flavor and smooth texture of mushrooms when used in the filling of a broiled mushroom appetizer. And macadamias provide just the right touch of sweet crispness when they are combined with pineapple into a fruit-bread with a tropical flavor. Hazelnuts, on the other hand, are sturdy enough to hold their distinctive flavor and texture when they're blended with oats in an interesting, macaroon-style cookie.

However you choose to utilize them, remember when you're buying nuts to purchase plenty . . . as insurance. It's almost impossible to resist sampling a few, whether you're simply putting them in a bowl for snacking purposes or chopping them up for cooking. CHOCOLATE-COVERED PRALINE COOKIES 1 1/2 cups flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed cup shortening 1 egg 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup chopped pecans Dipping chocolate

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, brown sugar, shortening, egg and vanilla. Blend well and stir in pecans. Roll into 1/2-inch balls and place on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 10 to 12 minutes. Cool. Hold cooled cookie with tongs and dip into Dipping Chocolate, covering completely or only half of cookie. Or drizzle chocolate over cookie on both sides, letting chocolate harden on one side before turning to coat other side. Makes 60 cookies. Dipping Chocolate 1 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate pieces 6 tablespoons oil

Melt chocolate pieces in top of double boiler set over hot water. Add oil; stir until smooth. PINEAPPLE-MACADAMIA NUT BREAD 4 eggs 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup oil 3/4 cup pineapple juice 1/2 cup canned crushed pineapple with juice 1 tablespoon baking powder 3 cups flour 1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts

Combine eggs, sugar, oil, juice and pineapple and mix well. Sift together baking powder and flour and mix into pineapple mixture. Fold in nuts. Pour into greased 9x5-inch loaf pan lined with wax paper and bake at 350 degrees about 50 minutes. Or fill greased muffin pans 3/4 full. Bake at 350 degrees 25 minutes. Makes 1 loaf or 18 muffins. SMOKY ALMONDS 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke 2 teaspoons water 1 cup unblanched whole almonds 1 teaspoon oil 1/8 teaspoon salt

Mix liquid smoke and water. Toss with almonds. Place in shallow pan, cover and let almonds stand overnight. Add oil and toss again. Bake at 300 degrees 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Turn often with spatula while roasting. Sprinkle with salt. Makes 1 cup or 4 servings. OATMEAL-HAZELNUT MACAROONS 1/2 cup shortening 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed 1/2 cup granulated sugar 1/2 teaspoon almond extract 1 egg cup sifted flour 1/2 teaspoon baking soda teaspoon salt 3/4 cup ground hazelnuts 1 cup oats 1/2 cup shredded coconut

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