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[Ed: Today is National Chocolate Chip Day and National Lasagne Day--the later being a repeat from only a week or so ago, and the former being boring. So I decided to adopt "Grab Some Nuts Day" from yesterday - while Sarah did a great job with National Watermelon Day, August 3rd has more to offer us...]
I was never really a lover of nuts, until I was fortunate to take a trip to Morocco a few years ago. It took transplanting me out of my routine, for me to give nuts a second chance, and I’m glad that I did.
I think my childhood memories of nuts can explain my previous apathy towards them. As a kid, my exposure to nuts-as-nuts (rather than, say, nuts as butter-tart ingredient) was limited to the bowls of nuts that were put out at Christmas, and the occasional tin of mixed nuts that my dad would get as a father’s day or birthday present. While as a 7 year old I liked the challenge of cracking the nuts out of the shells with the silver Christmas nut crackers, I only remember the taste of the walnuts being bitter and dusty. From there on out, I was ambivalent to nuts – sure, sprinkle a few on my salad, but they aren’t coming home with me from the grocery store as my treat of the week.
But then – well I made the acquaintance of the nut salesmen of Marrakesh. At night, Marrakesh’s square is littered with food sellers, and my favorite were the many many carts selling nuts, figs, dates and dried apricots. Morocco has that culture where you better be ready to buy (and bargain) before you even glance at something you’re considering buying. The businessmen of Marrakesh take their jobs seriously, and will use every trick in the book to make sure you don’t leave their cart/store/souk without something in your bag, and some of your money in your pocket. Don’t get me wrong- this isn’t a “hard sell” – this is consummate salesmanship. And “my nut guy” (i.e. the proprietor of my favorite nut stand) knew just how to hook me – he let me sample anything I wanted! Candied pistachios, smoked almonds, walnuts, etc. After nibbling my way across the cart, I would make my selections, and walk away clutching a thick brown paper envelope with my nutty treasures inside. Nuts had never tasted so good… or perhaps, I never new they could taste so good.
While I hate to pick favorites among my new nut friends, one of the best “nut” discoveries I made while in Morocco was Argan oil. Argan oil is an oil produced from the nuts of the Argan, a species of tree which only grows in south west Morocco. Now endangered and under protection of UNESCO, the Argan grows wild in semi-desert soil, its deep root system helping to protect against soil erosion and the northern advance of the Sahara. Amongst Berbers, argan oil has long been valued for its nutritive, cosmetic, and medicinal properties. Argan oil is rich in essential fatty acids and is more resistant to oxidation than olive oil. Argan oil from Morocco has received Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from Morocco’s Commission nationale des signes distinctifs d’origine et de qualité (CNSDOQ). Other familiar products that have received such recognition include champagne, Charlevoix lamb, and Asiago cheese. Argan oil is the first African product to receive a PGI.
The oil is best used as a dressing after cooking (like truffle oil) – for example in a salad dressing, drizzled over BBQ veggies or couscous, or for a pita dip–as it does not have the heat tolerance for cooking. It has a toasted, nutlike flavor with sesame overtones and a hint of bitterness. A dip for bread known as amlou is made from argan oil, almonds and peanuts, sometimes sweetened by honey or sugar. It’s delicious… and I was told it has aphrodisiac qualities!
Most moroccan argan oil sold today is produced by women’s cooperatives. The cooperatives support reforestation projects so that the supply of argan oil will not run out and the income that is currently supporting the women will not disappear. The money is providing healthcare and education to the local women, and supporting the Berber community as a whole. If you come across argan oil from Morocco, I would encourage you to buy it to support their work (just make sure you’re buying COOKING oil – there is also argan oil available as a beauty treatment, and the cosmetic oils likely have additives).
… and, if you can’t find argan oil, go ahead a grab some (other) nuts.
It’s National Praline Day. It’s also Special Guest Star/Chef’s Day on the blog!!… oohhh ah, yes that’s right, I brought in a ringer! With that bit of titillation, I’m going to start with the former… and leave you in suspense for a bit!
Pralines are basically a syrup and nut confection, which have an interesting history and regionalism. As originally inspired in France at the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte by the cook of the 17th-century sugar industrialist Marshal du Plessis-Praslin early pralines were whole almonds individually coated in caramelized sugar (as opposed to a sheet of caramelized sugar covering many nuts). French settlers brought this recipe to Louisiana, where both sugar cane and pecan trees were plentiful. During the 19th century, New Orleans chefs substituted pecans for almonds, added cream to thicken the confection, and thus created what became known throughout the American South as the praline. Southern i.e. american pralines (say “PRAW-leens” in your head!) take on quite a few shapes and sizes and are generally either creamy or chewy and have the consistency of fudge, with a gritty texture to coming from the sugar.
Back in Europe, the powder made by grinding up such sugar-coated nuts is called pralin, and is an ingredient in many cakes, pastries, and ice creams. When this powder is mixed with chocolate it becomes praliné in French, which gave birth to what is known in French as praline belge or “Belgian chocolates”. Therefore, if you ask for a praline in France, Belgium, Germany etc, you are most likely to get a filled chocolate! In the United Kingdom, the term can refer either to praline (the filling for chocolates) or, less commonly, to the original whole-nut pralines.
Thus, we’ve got a lot of latitude to play with today for National Praline Day. And I left the decision making to two of my favourite Victoria chefs! If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve heard me enthuse about the food at Devour, this tiny bistro near my office. I’ve gotten to know Jena and Alison, the chefs and co-owners, via my many many visits. We were talking about the blog one day, and much to my delight, they offered to make something for it! So today I’m sharing with your pralines, Devour style.
Alison said she stared with a recipe from epicurious [is it strange that it makes me feel better that the professional chefs occasionally just google things too?!?]. Of course, in true 365food style, there are a few modifications…
Pralines a la Devour!
Cocoa nib and Chili Praline
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon (packed) golden brown sugar
- chilli flakes (!!) [Allison didn't tell me how much to add - I think this may be a matter of taste/how hot your chillies are!]
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- 1/4 cup cocoa nibs
- 1/4 cup cashews, chopped
[Editorial Note: Allison said next time that she may try sprinkling the pralines with some maple smoked salt which she picked up at Defending Our Backyard, which I agree would be great - I like sweet and savoury together. So you may want to add that to your ingredient list!]
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk first 6 ingredients in medium bowl to blend. Stir in cocoa nibs and chopped cashews.
Drop mixture by tablespoonfuls onto prepared sheet, spacing 1 inch apart. Bake until mixture spreads and is deep golden brown, about 18 minutes [though Allison reports she had to cook hers longer, to get a nice clear candy look to it]. The mixture will flow together into 1 piece on baking sheet!
Remove from oven; cool completely on sheet. Break praline into irregular pieces or shards.
The result was a thin crunchy clear candy studded with chocolate and nuts. It starts sweet, then you taste the nuts, and just when you think the bite is over there is a great gently kick of heat from the chilli peppers. Brilliant!
…but you don’t have to take my word for it. A whole batch of these pralines were made yesterday, and are being served today with vanilla icecream, at Devour. Stop on in and give this important holiday your full attention! You can also see what else the ladies are cooking today here (the menu is usually posted about 11 am, so be patient!). If indulging today is too last minute, I will also let you know that Devour is going to be open late all next week (8am – 8pm) to serve those of you out enjoying Jazzfest. Stop in for their mussels, you won’t be disappointed… better have some cheese too…
With big thanks to Alison and Jena,
What can you say about Zucchini Bread? It’s fine, but it’s not special. I find it really hard to get excited about something so mundane. I know that might sound hypocritical coming from someone who can wax poetic over the glories of a grilled cheese sandwich. But, what can I say? I love cheese and, well, zucchini is just zucchini.
Don’t get me wrong. I like zucchini. It regularly appears in my stir fry. And, it has proved a good understudy for Japanese eggplant in my “Thai Red Curry with Chicken.” Most frequently I add grated zucchini and carrot to my marinara to bump up the nutrition quotient. But it really is just a delivery system for other flavours. It has no flavour of its own and the texture is a bit dubious as well. That said, I do have a really great recipe for a “Chocolate Zucchini Bundt Cake.” It’s rich, moist and delicious. But, alas, the recipe is lost in a mountain of yet-to-be transcribed recipes… in a box, in the den and not likely to see the light of day until later this summer… perhaps. I enjoy a good zucchini loaf from time to time, but really it’s the nuts and spices that I like.
So, what to do about Zucchini Bread day? First, I was determined not to make the traditional sweet loaf. Like I said, that’s all about the nuts, not so much the zucchini. I searched my favourite website for inspiration and lo and behold… I found my perfect muse. Epicurious.com has a recipe for tea sandwiches that sounded perfect – Radish Sandwiches on Zucchini and Basil Muffins. The recipe is from the July 1990 issue of Gourmet and is meant for a summer buffet kind of presentation. I decided to make regular sized muffins and skip the radishes but the primary goal was achieved. No sweet, nut-filled loaf for me… instead I got a savoury bite of basil infused goodness. I had my fresh-from-the-oven muffin with a slab of feta cheese and a few slices of cucumber. It was the perfect accompaniment to my afternoon tea.
Okay, so these muffins are really all about the basil instead of the zucchini. But, that little green squash pulled its weight. The muffins are moist and light, just what you would expect from a bread that uses more vegetable and less fat to create the texture. Really, it’s the zucchini that makes that chocolate cake so good too.
The real test for me is to ask “would I make them again?” And, yes, I believe I will. They are a nice addition to the brunch table and they held well over night, so they would be good in a picnic basket too. I guess there was something to get excited about after all.