Fired Dried Walnuts & Pecans
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In 1982 a scholar in Chinese literature from New Jersey astounded the cooking world with her delightful 623 page hardback book, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Going beyond mere technique, Barbara Tropp infused her writing with the philosophy and poetry of Chinese culture along with an explanation of traditional and modern ingredients.
I had the good fortune to be her assistant for two cooking classes at the John A. Brown Kitchenware store in Oakland that year, where I was the store manager. Later, when she opened China Moon Café in San Francisco in a 1930s era former coffee shop near the original Williams-Sonoma Flagship store on Sutter Street, I enjoyed lunch there as I was working at WS corporate. (It's always special when the chef stops by your table in front of business associates to greet you in person!)
A soft-spoken, petite caucasian woman who spoke, read, and wrote in Chinese, she regaled us with the story of shopping for produce in SF Chinatown and listening to disparaging remarks about her being there, then remarking to those same ladies (with evident delight in flawless Mandarin), "Yes, and some of us even understand what you're saying about us".
I have been thinking of Barbara a lot lately, and note that we met 41 years ago this month. [Here's the book she signed for me to give to Donald as a gift]. Sadly, we lost her 22 years ago, also in the autumn.
Donald and I used to make her Fire Dried Walnuts (pp 105-106) quite often for guests, and have adapted it here to substitute Lucero Arbequina EVOO for corn or peanut oil and offer a variant using Tingly Sichuan Salt, a collaboration between Jacobsen Salt Company and Fly by Jing. Barbara suggests that this recipe works equally well with pecans, so we've prepared that recipe with the Arbequina substitute and Jacobsen's Pure Kosher Sea Salt.
I hope you enjoy this technique with its two recipe variations. Barbara attributes the original to her literary friend and mentor James Lo, as an example of a Hunanese "little dish" to start a meal. In her own words:
"These nuts have a beguiling texture and an irresistible gloss of caramelized salt and sugar that make them almost universal favorites. These are not the heavily candied walnuts one finds in Hunanese restaurants. Rather, they are refined, elegant sweetmeats, just perfect for greeting guests. You may soak and dry the nuts days in advance, but to serve them warm and freshly caramelized is the ultimate seduction."
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Fire Dried Walnuts & Pecans
The section on soaking and drying the nuts is a critical one as the soaking removes bitterness, and the drying creates a wonderful texture. The result is immensely satisfying and delightful.
Soaking and drying the nuts
Put the nuts in a heat proof bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for 30 minutes, drain, pat dry, and spread evenly on a large baking pan lined with a triple thickness of paper towels. 2 cups of nuts fit onto one sheet pan, so if you decide to double the recipe or try both version, use two pans.
Preheat oven to 300ºF, and dry the nuts for approximately 30 minutes in the middle section of the oven. Turn the tray, reduce the heat to 250ºF, and check at 10 minute intervals and remove the nuts from the oven when they are almost entirely dry, “with just a kernel of moistness at the core”. We’ve found that our oven (and our arid climate, seems to only require the initial 30 minutes, so you may or may not need to continue beyond that time period). Barbara suggests testing the nuts from several spots on the tray to be sure.
Caramelizing the nuts
Heat a wok or heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot. Add the oil, swirl to coat, then add the nuts. Stir gently with a wooden until evenly glossed with oil and feel warm to the touch. Lower heat at once if the nuts begin to scorch.
Sprinkle the salt you’ve selected over the nuts and stir gently to mix, then slowly sprinkle the sugar until you have your desired sweetness level. It’s important to remember that these are not a heavily caramelized confection; they’re a delicate sweetmeat. I like her direction here: “The taste should be lively and sweet, with a hint of salt”. Stir constantly while adding the sugar, and break off any caramelized bits that cling to the spoon, stirring them back into the nuts when you are done. The entire process goes quickly—in 3 or 4 minutes. The salt and sugar will melt and adhere to the nuts.
Serve hot or cool, either as an hors d'oeuvre or as a diversion in a meal. Either of these recipes would enhance your cheese board; perhaps a favorite cheese with some honeycomb; I can see serving these with stilton, Comice pears, and port.
Of course, you will enjoy them, too, just by themselves with white wine or champagne, I hope you do.