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Thanksgiving : 'Tis the Nutsy Season

November 17, 1994|MICHAEL ROBERTS

The walnut harvest has just come to a close in California, where 99% of all U.S. production occurs. The walnuts grown in California are the European variety, actually called English walnuts. The first trees were planted in the late 1700s and the first commercial California crop was planted in Santa Barbara in 1867.

Walnuts are, arguably, the world's most popular nut. In fact, in several languages, French among them, the generic word for nut and the name of the walnut are the same. In English, walnut means "foreigner's nut."

The Greeks and Romans thought that walnuts, whose two meat halves resemble a brain, cured headaches.

In France and Italy, one finds dehusked fresh walnuts in the outdoor markets in September and October. The nutmeats have a lighter color, creamier texture and a less nutty flavor, milder than the mature nuts that we love. They are eaten raw, or cooked in syrup or pickled in a vinegar brine.


In Italy, fresh walnuts are used to make a sweet nut-flavored liqueur. Walnuts are great additions to cooked dishes. Soak the meats of mature, dry walnuts in milk overnight and you will regain much of their fresh flavor. I find that this technique greatly improves the results of dishes with cooked walnuts by diminishing any bitter aftertaste that the nuts might impart to a sauce.

Walnuts can thicken sauces, both cooked and uncooked, as well as soups. Their flavor in a sauce for turkey, for instance, is perfect for this time of the year. I don't use the nuts to thicken the gravy, only to add flavor.

Try substituting walnuts soaked in milk for the usual pine nuts in an Italian pesto or French pistou. The result is subtle but noticeable, and the walnuts add a counterpoint to the intense basil flavor.

Walnuts in the shell will remain fresh and tasty for months if kept in a cool, dry place. Like other nuts, though, they turn stale and rancid if stored at room temperature. If not vacuum sealed, they should be stored in airtight plastic food bags in the freezer for up to a year.


My puree of Brussels sprouts soup, which I finish with a dash of Pernod and walnut oil, is a holiday favorite among my friends. The same trick works with other green "gassy" vegetables such as broccoli and even zucchini.

Probably the most common culinary use of walnuts is in salads. Happily, the walnut harvest coincides with the first appearance of winter apples and pears as well as Belgian endive. The following salad plays on the flavor juxtaposition of nutty, tannic nuts, slightly bitter endive and the salty "high" flavor of Stilton cheese, all cleansed by crisp apples.

Walnut oil, the dark, toasted kind, is an indispensable staple in my fall kitchen. I use it in place of the usual oil and vinegar to dress salads. For a simple salad, toss Bibb lettuce with equal parts walnut oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.


1/2 cup walnut halves and pieces


Turkey drippings

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup flour

4 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 teaspoon dried sage

Salt, pepper

Night before roasting turkey, soak walnuts in bowl with milk to cover. Then refrigerate. After turkey is roasted, set aside and place roasting pan on stove over medium heat. Add butter and drained walnuts and cook, stirring, 5 minutes.

Add flour and stir until mixture is smooth. Cook 1 minute longer. Add chicken stock, sage and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring, to reduce gravy until sauce-like in consistency, about 5 minutes. Scrape into gravy boat and serve.

To freeze, place gravy in lidded plastic container and place in refrigerator to cool. Cover and freeze up to 6 months. Makes about 4 cups.


3 heads Belgian endive

1 apple, unpeeled, cut into julienne strips

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup walnut halves or pieces

1/2 pound Stilton cheese, crumbled

3 tablespoons walnut oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Cut endive into 3/4-inch rounds and place in salad bowl. Add apple. Toss with lemon juice. Add walnuts, apple, cheese, walnut oil, salt and white pepper. Toss well. Makes 4 servings.


1/4 cup unsalted butter

1 medium onion, diced

5 cups halved Brussels sprouts

4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons walnut oil

1 capful Pernod, optional

Freshly ground pepper

Melt butter in soup pot over low heat. Add onion and cook, covered, about 7 minutes, without browning. Add Brussels sprouts. Cook, covered, stirring frequently to avoid browning, 25 minutes. Stir in stock, then salt.

Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Strain soup and reserve liquid. Transfer Brussels sprouts to blender or food processor and puree until very smooth. Return puree to soup pot and add reserved liquid until soup is of desired consistency. Stir in cream.

To finish soup, add walnut oil and Pernod to hot soup along with any pepper to taste. Serve piping hot in soup tureen or individually in bowls. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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