Day 288 – National Walnut Day

Another day to celebrate one of those ingredients that has become a star on this little journey of mine. We have always had walnuts in our house mostly because Lola eats them for their nutrients. Walnuts are an excellent source of omega-3 oils, antioxidants, manganese, copper, molybdenum and the B vitamin biotin (you don’t want to see what Lola is like when she her molybdenum drops). She adds them to her yogurt and sometimes her tuna. Nuts are fuel and they are part of the fuel that keeps her running. I like them enough and if I am making yogurt or tuna for Lola, I’ll always sneak in a handful to chomp on, but I use them primarily for cooking. Prior to this quest, I really only used them for my banana bread. But since this quest began, I have started using them almost weekly. They go in cakes, cookies, fudge and more. They are a pretty versatile nut and always seem to bring good taste and texture to any pastry or cake you are baking.

That’s not exactly breaking news. Walnuts are actually the oldest tree food known to man, dating back to 7000 B.C. Those walnuts were slightly different than the ones we are familiar with today which are called English Walnuts, are more aptly Persian Walnuts. It was in Persia where the common walnut was cultivated and harvested and became a valuable source of food for the time. When the Crusades hit, the happy Crusaders helped spread walnuts throughout Europe increasing their crops and enjoyment in the world (which made all that religious persecution taste so much better). The nuts came to the Americas in the 1700’s from Spain and were harvested by monks in the California missions. California seems to be the fertile ground that is so good for so many crops. That’s where walnuts flourished and that’s where almost all of the walnuts sold in the United States today continue to grow (specifically in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys).*

If you do a search for recipes with walnuts, you’re not going to come up empty. In fact, you are going to have too much information. Not only are walnuts good in anything sweet, but they are equally versatile in savory dishes. When an ingredient is almost 10,000 years old, you can be sure that there are a lot of ways to cook and prepare them. This doesn’t make my job easy. I like it when I have less options. On the sweet side, I feel I have been making a lot with walnuts lately, most recently the walnut fudge that I made on Friday which was actually really good. The walnuts brought a new level of flavor to my tried and true fudge recipe and I may start adding them to my fudge every time. Because we are still working through that fudge, that made me look for something savory. I landed on pesto sauce.

Your typical pesto sauce is made with pine nuts along with garlic, oil, fresh basil and cheese. However I noticed one recipe which substituted walnuts for the pine nuts and I was intrigued. We actually just had a big pasta dinner the night before (we went out to celebrate at Roberto’s in Bristol – I had a delicious carbonara and Lola had a pink vodka sauce), so having pasta again seemed a bit gluttonous. Instead, I was going to grill up some steak and top the steak with the pesto. Pesto is somewhat easy to make. I made ours in our blender and started with the garlic and walnuts. Once those were all chopped up, I added in the basil leaves. I had to keep scraping down the sides and blending again, but eventually I had a nice little paste going. Then I poured in some olive oil and continued blending. Soon it was looking like a nice dark green pesto. I added the parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, and the sauce was done. I went to grill my steak but had some issues with my grill, so I had to make a quick change and finish it in our iron skillet. Starting a steak on a grill and then moving it to a hot pan is never a good way to cook a steak, but I had to improvise as best I could. I also made some potatoes that I topped with a little bit of butter. I have to say, it was a good looking dinner.

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The steak was a bit chewy and I know that this was a result of how I cooked it. Had it spent the whole time on the grill, some of the fat would have melted away. But it did come out as a solid medium rare and was tasty. The pesto sauce was spot on too with a nice balance of the nuts, the cheese and garlic. I may have used a bit too much oil, but it still brought good flavor. It paired perfectly with the steak giving each bite a little something extra. I also ended up putting it on the potatoes and it was perfect for that too – just the right amount of flavor without losing that buttery potato taste. I was a fan, and Lola was too.  I have a feeling that Lola will enjoy the sauce more tomorrow when she discovers what else she can use it on. I had a ton leftover which is a good problem to have.

When I was pondering the versatility of walnuts, my mind kept thinking about all the sweet uses for them. From pancakes to muffins to cookies to cakes. I suddenly thought back to National Baklava Day back in November which I recalled as one of those recipes I didn’t realize walnuts were such a big part of. Ironically, Baklava Day had fallen on the birthday of our nephew Calix and on that day, we had taken a tray of homemade baklava to Cherie’s house for the birthday party. Today, Calix turned 18 months old, so apparently, walnuts are going to be part of this kid’s life whether he likes them or not. I didn’t know it was Calix’s day today, but I saw a cute picture of him on Facebook that Cherie posted (which I naturally stole to post here). Happy birthday Calix! This little guy makes me smile.

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I was feeling that I wasn’t giving walnuts the proper tribute by not making something sweet as part of my celebration. I didn’t really feel like making something that was too involved, so instead I went with a box of Betty Crocker brownies. They were the extra fudge kind which comes with the fudge packet. I made them according to the directions for an 8″ x 8″ pan which meant that would be thicker. I also added in chocolate chips (they make any brownie better) and then I folded in about a cup of chopped walnuts. I don’t usually like walnuts in my brownies, but they certainly belong there. They took about 55 minutes to cook which made our kitchen smell as good as ever. I bet the smell was causing Lola to drool as she was closest in proximity to the aroma.

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I gave Lola a taste of one after dinner and it may have been a surprise to her because I  am not sure she knew what I had made. She wasn’t all that excited about a brownie at that moment, especially one with a walnut inside, but she took it and bit in. Then she paused and asked me the rhetorical question of “why is everything you make so damn good?” She was actually a bit aggravated because she has just about had her fill of sweets and she actually hoped that the brownie would be awful so that she wouldn’t be tempted. Not this time. These brownies were too good. The box brownies are always good and as I have mentioned before, Lola loves the way I make them. Maybe it’s the chocolate chips, or because I pull them out when they are slightly underdone, but the inside of my brownies have a batter-like texture to them. The walnuts just added to the whole party, bringing in the addition of the texture plus that earthy, fruity nut flavor. It was kind of delicious. I may have to get rid of these because our supply of fudge has been a constant temptation all week long. Brownies may be too much to keep in house.

The walnut is definitely something that deserves our adoration and celebration. Few foods have a longer history and more diverse index of potential recipes that cover both the savory and sweet side. The older I get, the more of a fan of walnuts I am becoming. When I was a kid, I never liked them. I only liked when I could smash open the shells with a special nutcracker that would rest atop the bowl of nuts which were kept out like a decoration. I’d crack them open, then give them to my Dad to eat. But now, every time I use walnuts in a recipe, they make the whole recipe better. I guess that’s my maturing palate. Nonetheless, I am grateful for having walnuts in my life. They bring us nutrition, taste and fun. I’m sure the rest of my journey will keep them in a pretty heavy rotation in our pantry. That’s a tribute to their versatility and flavor. That’s worth celebrating.

Next Up: National Cheese Souffle Day 

(*Info from NationalGeographic.com

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