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Walnuts: Eat 'Em While They're New

October 22, 1992|DEBORAH MADISON | Madison is the author of "The Greens Cookbook" and "The Savory Way" (both Bantam). She lives in Santa Fe. and

Because walnuts do not perish like tomatoes or peaches, we tend to regard them as a year-around item. And indeed they are a food capable of providing winter sustenance or standing in as a casual ending to a winter's meal.

However, a fresh fall walnut is truly a delicacy, worlds removed from the same nut even a month later. Inside the shell, papery, straw-colored skins cover ivory-colored flesh whose taste is still mild, almost milky. A month or two later the skins will begin to darken; the meat will grow more rigid and less delicate, the flavor more pronounced and nutty. As the months pass, the nuts will go on darkening and start to dry, while the oil within begins its natural movement toward rancidity.

By summer they're not so appealing. But by then it's hot, and oil-rich nuts in general aren't as appealing to eat as when it's cool. Then it's fall and we're ready for nuts again.

Incidentally, walnuts keep best in their protective shell. If they are already shelled, storing them in the freezer or refrigerator will greatly slow down their general deterioration. But shelled or not, a new-crop walnut is new for just a month or so.

New-crop walnuts make a good base for sauces. A thick sauce of ground walnuts flavored with fennel seeds makes a smooth and subtle garnish for grilled eggplant or a dip with raw fennel and other late-summer vegetables.

A thinner bechamel-based sauce, using ground walnuts made even paler by soaking the walnuts in very hot water, then peeling the tannic skins, makes a rich pairing with cannelloni filled with assertive-tasting greens. (The same sauce made with older nuts will take on a decidedly pinkish hue from the skins.) This is a bit of work, but fun to do at least once a year.

New-crop walnuts are also good in baked goods that feature nuts, such as a walnut torte, a walnut custard based on pureed, strained walnuts and walnut cookies. They could also be featured with great success in walnut breads.

And, of course, eating new-crop walnuts out of hand is a direct and perfectly good way to enjoy them. Crack the shells so that they're easy to open and put them out in a basket to enjoy with a glass of wine or for an informal dessert.

Three fresh fruits that are ripe at the same time the nuts come on--the fall crop of figs, quince and pears--are wonderful with walnuts. All have a soft, rich, succulent quality that is superb. Crisp apples make a nice counterpoint.

That combination of walnuts and fruits would also be grand with all kinds of cheeses--a soft, mild goat cheese, rich triple-creams, delicate homemade ricotta or cream cheeses (with a drizzle of honey, perhaps), the more assertive ricotta salata or virtually any of the blues.

Add seasonal greens to make a hearty salad. Generally, foods pair best with those foods that are in season at the same time. Thus new-crop walnuts are especially good with fennel, beets, eggplant, the first fall chicories ( frisee , escarole, radicchio and endive) and other strongly flavored greens.

All these foods fit harmoniously together in many ways: walnuts with pears, endive and Gorgonzola cheese; roasted beets with arugula, walnuts, apples and walnut vinaigrette; shaved fennel with walnuts, figs and frisee ; baked quince with lightly roasted walnuts, poached pears with walnut cookies, grilled fennel with walnut sauce and fennel seeds--the list could go on.

It's an immensely enjoyable season, but a brief one, coming just before winter squash and the root vegetables take the stage.


3 pounds chard or mixed greens with stems


2 cups ricotta cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup grated Romano cheese

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

4 eggs

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon

Ground nutmeg


Lemon juice

Egg Pasta

Walnut Sauce

Additional grated Parmesan cheese

Bring large pot of water to boil. Cut leaves away from thick center stems of chard and wash well. (Save chard stems to cook separately or for soup stock.) If using mixture of greens, cook separately--some will take longer than others. When water comes to boil, add salt to taste and cook greens until tender, 3 to 5 minutes.

Drain greens in colander. Press out as much moisture as possible with hands or back of wooden spoon. Set greens on cutting board and chop finely. Place in bowl and add ricotta, grated cheeses, garlic, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, eggs and lemon zest. Mix well. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Bring water to boil, then add salt. Drop Egg Pasta squares (cannelloni), several at time, into boiling water. Pasta will fall to bottom, then rise to surface. When pasta returns to surface, remove with slotted spoon and drop into bowl of cold water. Once cooled, drain and place squares on towel to dry.

Fill cannelloni by placing 3 to 4 tablespoons of chard mixture along 1 end of each square of pasta. Loosely roll or fold pasta around filling.

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