AT THIS time of year, nuts can be a wonderful complement to many of the flavours of the season.
Rather than seeing them as just a snack, it’s worth thinking about how you can cook with them, as they can add complexity, texture and warmth to a host of dishes.
My all-time favourite winter variety of nuts is the glorious chestnut. Just the smell of them roasting conjures up memories of my time in Paris, where there were lots of street stalls selling bags of hot chestnuts. I never could resist them and still smile at the thought of enjoying warm, fragrant mouthfuls of that sweet, almost burnt flavour you can only get from fresh roasted chestnuts eaten straight from a hot paper bag.
Today I also love to use them in my cooking to add texture and sweetness to game dishes – particularly venison – and desserts. Dried chestnuts can also make a wonderful smoky addition to soups or stews.
It’s not only chestnuts that are in abundance at this time of year. Hazelnuts or cobnuts and walnuts also make a great ingredient in your winter kitchen and matching them with some of the season’s best winter berries and fruits, earthy root vegetables, tender game or fresh seafood can really lift a dish.
Hazelnuts are a wonderful ingredient – tasty and healthy too. Whether you use them thrown simply into a salad, chop them finely and pair with the best of winter’s fruit and vegetables, or blend them to create your own dressing, they can bring a real punch to a dish. When you cook or roast hazelnuts, they take on a lovely mellow, sweet flavour. Often you’ll find hazelnuts already shelled, but if you buy them with their shells on you can make it easier to shell them by placing them on a baking sheet and putting them in the oven for about ten to 12 minutes. When the skin starts to split and the nut kernels start to turn golden, they’re ready to take out and shell by rubbing them on to a clean tea towel.
Nuts can also be ground and used to make flour, which can make a nuttier alternative to bought plain flour. I also love to create my own dressings and oils for salads and soups, using fresh hazelnuts to make them even more flavoursome.
Nuts are very good for you, packed with vitamin E, calcium, protein, fibre and essential fats. Some people worry about the fat content in nuts, but actually most varieties boast healthy fats. Almonds, chestnuts and hazelnuts have lower saturated fat content than many other varieties. What better reason to try a few recipes using these wonderful winter splendours?
Roasted pumpkin with endive, goat’s cheese and hazelnut dressing
500g pumpkin, cut into moons
1 apple, cut into quarters
1 endive, leaves separated
200g good-quality goat’s cheese
handful of watercress
2 handfuls of late season brambles or berries
olive oil for cooking
For the hazelnut dressing
1 tbsp chopped hazelnuts
1 tbsp chopped walnuts
1 tbsp chopped pistachios
1 tsp peeled and finely chopped shallots
1 tsp finely chopped chives
1 tsp finely chopped parsley
50ml hazelnut oil
dash of sherry vinegar
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.
Peel away the skin from the pumpkin and remove the seeds (you can keep the skin on if you prefer). Cut into thick, moon-shaped slices.
Heat a non-stick frying pan and heat some olive oil. Add the pumpkin and season with salt. Cook for three to four minutes until it colours nicely – it should take on a lovely golden colour. Turn and colour the other side, then place in the oven for six to eight minutes. To check the pumpkin is cooked, insert a small knife into the flesh. If there is some resistance, it needs a little longer.
Once cooked, remove the pumpkin from the pan and set aside.
Meanwhile, to make the dressing, place all the chopped nuts in a bowl. Combine with the shallots, chives and a touch of seasoning. Drizzle in the hazelnut oil and add a splash of sherry vinegar. Finally, add the chopped parsley and set aside.
To prepare the salad, cut the apple into quarters, separate the endive leaves, chop the goat’s cheese, and build them up on your plate as a layered tower. Add the watercress then the autumn berries to the plate.
Just before serving, drizzle with the hazelnut dressing.
Crab and hazelnut mayonnaise
For the mayonnaise
2 free range medium egg yolks at room temperature
1 tsp Dijon mustard
25ml white wine vinegar
250ml hazelnut oil
squeeze of lemon juice
For the crab
200g crab meat
1 apple, diced
30g diced celeriac
30g diced neeps
30g diced carrot
1 tbsp chopped chives
1 tbsp chopped hazelnuts
4 slices sourdough toast
1 lemon (to serve)
To make the mayonnaise
Put the egg yolks into a medium bowl with the mustard and wine vinegar and whisk together until evenly combined.
Slowly drizzle in the hazelnut oil, whisking continuously as you do so, to emulsify the mixture.
Once all the oil is added you should have a thick, glossy mayonnaise. Season with salt and add a squeeze of lemon juice to taste.
To make the crab
Blanch the celeriac, neeps and carrots in salted water until they are just cooked, then remove and place in iced water.
Place the crab meat in a mixing bowl and season lightly with salt. Add the mayonnaise, but ensure you add just enough to bind the crab. Then mix in the celeriac, neeps and carrots, and add the chopped chives, diced apple and chopped hazelnuts. Season to taste.
Toast the sourdough bread, then drizzle some of the hazelnut oil over the toast.
Place the crab on top and serve with a wedge of lemon on the side.