Nut Case

Growing up in Arizona, I've never had a strong sense of season. For starters, we only have two: hot and warm.

Being a seasonal dyslexic, I relied on artificial clues to tell when the seasons were changing. As spring approached, the population dwindled, and people wore short-sleeved shirts with their shorts. Winter, and the holidays, began when the department stores put up their Christmas decorations. Now, these decorations are up for what seems like most of the year, so I need other clues to gauge the season.

I use nuts.

I'm not referring to eccentric people. And I'm definitely not making anatomic innuendo. I get my guidance in the produce department of the grocery store.

Fresh, in-the-shell nuts start to appear a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Most of these nuts end up in big bowls on coffee tables, studded with a nutcracker or two.

Shelled nuts can be found in store displays that include candied fruit, dates and baking supplies since nuts figure prominently in all sorts of holiday recipes -- Christmas cookies, date-nut bread, spice cake, fruitcake and fudge, to name a few.

Nuts will also spruce up your savory favorites. Bring your stuffing recipe up a few notches by adding some walnuts and sautéed leeks. Top your sweet potatoes with a sprinkling of chopped pecans and diced dried apricots. Brown sliced or slivered almonds in a little butter and toss them with green beans, broccoli or carrots.

In addition to flavor, nuts add color, texture, protein and fiber to a recipe. Improve your end result by cooking with good nuts. Nuts contain oil, and oil can become rancid. Nothing ruins a recipe faster than stale or rancid nuts.

And just because nuts are in a sealed bag doesn't mean they're fresh. Don't buy pre-chopped nuts. Smaller pieces go bad faster. Store your nuts in the refrigerator or freezer. Always taste nuts before using. If they have an off flavor, throw them away.

So, with the weather still unseasonably warm, I stopped in at Fry's to do some grocery shopping since it was on my way home from wherever I was at the time.

And there it was. The pre-holiday nut display was back. Nuts in shells. Nuts in bags. In a couple of minutes, seven or eight pounds of nuts in my shopping cart.

Fresh, shell-on walnuts, almonds, pecans and hazelnuts (filberts) went from the cardboard display bin to my house for the very reasonable price of $1.99 per pound.

A few feet away: a perfect display of heaping stacks of just-unpacked one-pound bags of shelled nuts. Freshly shelled walnuts and almonds ($3.99 per pound), and pecans ($4.99 per pound). Removing the bags was like taking pins out of a new shirt in the dressing room of a department store.

And, in fact, the Fry's nuts with shells were all very fresh. Not a surprise, since in-shell nuts stay fresh longer than shelled. There were a few shriveled pecans and walnuts. This isn't unusual. The occasional bad nut, and the effort of cracking the shells, are part of the price of eating the freshest nuts possible.

The walnuts were creamy and had a rich walnut flavor. I'd forgotten how great fresh, cracked almonds taste -- sweet, earthy and crisp. The pecans were good, too, but not worth the effort. It was hard to remove the shell, and they broke into very small pieces. The hazelnuts were sweet, with a hint of the smoky flavor they lend to Frangelico (a liqueur).

I was expecting some of the freshly shelled nuts to be a little stale, but Fry's surprised me. I guess they really were freshly shelled.

The shelled pecans were crisp and mildly sweet. The almonds were okay, but not as rich as the ones I shelled. The walnuts tasted as good as the ones I shelled myself, but the texture was less creamy.

My search for Valley nuts also led me to Bates Nut Farm, 9605 East Apache Trail in Mesa. I assumed it was a farm, and that nuts at a nut farm would be the best. Like they say, never assume.

Bates Nut Farm, it turns out, is just a store.

All of Bates' nuts were shelled (with the exception of a four-pound bag of mixed shell-on nuts for $9.99).

The walnuts ($3.50 per pound) were excellent, the pieces huge, plump and crisp. They tasted even creamier than the shell-on walnuts from Fry's. The raw almonds were very good, and at $1.99 per pound they're a bargain. The hazelnuts ($4.29 per pound) were large, mildly sweet and, like Fry's hazelnuts, made me think of Frangelico.

The pecans were another story. The first pecan I tasted was stale. I rinsed my mouth with water and tasted another. A few chews and I had to spit; the pecans were rancid. So much for the nut farm.

If you think nuts are too full of fat to eat without guilt, here's my advice: Learn to rationalize.

Take it from someone who can rationalize a 30-plus-mile drive (one way) to a nonexistent Mesa nut farm.

Andy Broder writes about food, develops recipes and teaches cooking classes in the Valley.

Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]

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Andy Broder