At first glance, I thought this would be a pretty easy one to celebrate, and it was. However the almond is pretty versatile so finding a good way to honor it was the challenge. It’s good just by itself – the perfect afternoon snack. It’s also good in sweet concoctions like almond cookies, chocolate covered almonds and almond cakes. Their crunchiness holds up well when combined with any kind of batter or mixture, so it’s a pretty versatile ingredient in baking and candy making. But it can also be used for savory preparations too. Again, its crunchy texture holds up against whatever you add it in. The problem of soggy almonds is not usually a complaint. You find almonds in all kinds of salads and in all kinds of dinner entrees too. The diversity of this nut makes it very deserving of celebration, but what should I do?
Almonds have a pretty long history and in fact are mentioned in the Bible. That would mean that they have been around since at least 1400 BC and likely long before that. In the 1700’s, Franciscan Padres brought almond trees over from Spain to California and after some trial and error with the soils in the new world, the trees started to take root and blossom. By 1900, the California almond industry was firmly established and through successful crossbreeding, many of the varieties of almonds that we enjoy today were created. Today, almonds are California’s top agricultural export and top tree nut crop. Furthermore, they are the top US specialty crop export. (Source: California Almonds). That’s a pretty great nut right there. Actually, a pretty great drupe. The almond tree actually bores a fleshy green fruit and at the center of the fruit is the hull or pit which is where we get the almond nut that we know. The almond is actually an edible seed.
They put the almond to good use too. Obviously a large chunk of their sales come from selling it as a nut for eating or cooking (they prepare the nuts in all kinds of great versions now: smoked, roasted, salted, honey roasted, pumpkin-spiced, etc.). But they also make oils out of almonds for cooking as well as flour which are good alternatives for people with gluten allergies, although terrible for people with nut allergies. Then they make almond milk as well. They do this by soaking blanched almonds in water for some time and then processing the hell out of it until it turns to liquid. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. I always thought there was some kind of almond teat that skillful farmers would work their magic on. The magic I guess is just the almond itself.
I decided to go savory today because frankly I have gone a little heavy on the sweet as of late. So I looked around the internet for some recipes. It looked like my choices were a salad or something almond encrusted. I wasn’t inspired by any of the salads I saw and I felt like a salad doesn’t really celebrate the almond – it’s just an add on, like a crouton. I then thought about almond encrusting. We have eaten chicken for the last few nights, so I took that off the table. I then gave Lola the choice of either fish or pork. I’m not a big fish guy, but I thought I might give it a try if Lola was game. Most of the recipes I saw were for tilapia which knowing what we do about tilapia farming, was not going to be a selling point. There was one time when Lola was in Aruba (on Becky & Jeff’s honeymoon – that’s another story) that she had a almond encrusted grouper with creamed spinach that she has been dreaming about ever since. When I said almond encrusted, that’s what she thought of but upon reflection, she didn’t want to soil the memory of that meal which was so sacred in her mind. We’d have to go to Aruba for that. She opted for pork instead. I was hoping she would say that. I found a recipe on the California Almond website for Almond Encrusted Pork. Their recipe was served with cooked cabbage and pears too, but I was just going to make the pork.
To make this, you essentially chop up the almonds along with some thyme, salt and pepper and then you coat your pork chops in the mixture. When they are thoroughly coated, you cook them in some oil (five minutes on each side) and then finish them in the oven. They suggested frying them in almond oil, but I didn’t have any of that. I used canola oil, but added a drop of almond extract to the oil to give it a slight almond flavor. I’m not sure if this had any effect on the cooking process, but it sounded like good idea. I let them fry away in the oil sizzling away. It was actually really easy and I had time to clean up the dishes while they were cooking. After they finished in the oven, I served them up along with some french fries and some steamed veggies. I made sure I scooped out all of the almond crumbs that had fallen off the pork and were at the bottom of the pan. I spread that atop the chops before serving. It looked like a good little dinner.
My first bite was a bit dry. When I had pulled them from the oven, I did a rookie move and cut into the pork chop to see if it was finished. It probably was but there was a slight hue of pink in the center that I know would have troubled Lola if she bit into it. I put them back in the oven for another five minutes with my pork chop now having a huge slice down the middle. I think that dried out my pork chop. When I took a bite with some of the almonds on it, that’s when I got the true taste of the chop, which was fantastic. It gave the bite an extra texture of crunchiness, but it was flavorful too. The cooking of the almonds really brought out their flavor and it added a nice taste to the pork. This ended up being really delicious. Lola thought so too. In fact, she said it a few times so I think she was pleasantly surprised with every bite. Pretty neat that on Almond Day, the ingredient that was the true star of the dish was indeed the almond.
I also snacked on almonds in the middle of the day too. Nothing new about that. I often open our pantry cabinets looking for something to nosh on and when I see the almonds, I’ll grab a handful. Today however I did that in honor of the holiday. I also grabbed a Hershey Bar with Almonds today too. I don’t think I have ever purposely reached for a Hershey Bar with Almonds (I’ve only eaten them when you get to the bottom of the Hershey miniature bags). But I was in CVS waiting in line and staring at the candy, when I saw the almond on the wrapper staring back at me. I felt I was compelled to get it. So that was a treat, plus for the hungry guy getting impatient waiting inline, it satisfied my hanger and got me through the afternoon.
I’d say that’s one multipurpose and enjoyable drupe. The almond really is a pretty versatile nut. From snacking to feasting to drinking to divulging – it gets the job done on all levels. Drinking? I didn’t even mention the adult beverages we can make with almond liqueur (also known as Amaretto). I could have enjoyed a happy hour cocktail today to taste the almond. An Almond Joy perhaps? Toasted Almond? Maybe a Dr. Pepper Shot? One little nut with so many possibilities. That’s why the almond definitely deserves a day of celebration. All our crops should be able to provide this many options for enjoyment and we salute that. C’mon walnuts – pick up your game.
Next Up: National Cabbage Day