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Nuts star in Mexican holiday cooking

Karen Hursh Graber

At this time of year, baskets piled high with a variety of nuts are prominently displayed in Mexican markets. Incorporated into many holiday dishes, both sweet and savory, nuts have been eaten in Mexico since the Spaniards introduced them nearly five hundred years ago.

Most nuts originated in Asia, Asia Minor and India and, like so many other foods, were dispersed throughout the world during the Age of Exploration (15th to17th centuries.) The Spaniards, who had been introduced to products from the East during the Moorish occupation, were responsible for incorporating the use of nuts into the cuisines of their colonies. Here is a look at some of the nuts used most frequently in Mexican holiday cooking. (Peanuts, which are actually a legume, were discussed in "Los Cacahuates."

Pecans, called nuez, are one of the most commonly used nuts in Mexico, and are abundant in markets during the fall season. Unlike many other nuts, pecans are a New World native, and in Mexico are principally grown in Chihuahua. They are usually one of the least expensive kinds of nuts in the country, which is the world's twelfth largest producer of pecans. The word nuez is often used to include all nuts, but if a Mexican recipe calls for nuez, it is most likely the pecan.

Pecans are used in cookies, holiday candies and even in dough for tamales. The tamales de nuez of the Bajío region have ground nuts, sugar and anise mixed in with the masa to make distinctive, sweet tamales. In Oaxaca, pecans halves are incorporated into a milk, sugar and cinnamon base to make a candy called gollorías, while in many other parts of the country, pecan candy is made with a brown sugar syrup and known as nueces garapiñadas.

Similar in flavor to pecans are walnuts, which were originally from India and became a favorite dessert ingredient in Spain, where they are used in a syrup-soaked cake. Similar desserts were created by the Spanish nuns in Colonial-era Puebla. In Mexico, walnuts are called nuez de castilla and are found in the markets beginning in August, when they are the requisite ingredient for the nogada, or walnut sauce, used to top the chiles en nogada, served all over the country during the patriotic month of September. In December, they are frequently used instead of pecans in the myriad candied nut recipes.

Grown in Central Mexico, walnuts are pricier than pecans, but only true nuez de castilla is acceptable for nogada sauce. The walnut is a good nutritional investment since, in addition to the important minerals such as calcium and phosphorous found in most tree nuts, they are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Another good nutritional bet is the almond (almendra) which, like the walnut, is technically the seed of a one-seeded fruit. The almond originated in ancient China and is an ancestor of stone fruits, or drupes, such as peaches and plums. It is much appreciated in Mexico for a wide range of culinary specialties.

The almond is found in savory dishes such as almond soup, almond mole and picadillo, and in desserts like almond flan, cookies, and even almond rompope, a traditional Christmas beverage. Almonds are also used in holiday and special occasion stuffings for both turkey and pork loin.

Unlike almonds and walnuts, the hazelnut is considered a "true nut" since it is a dry, one-seeded fruit in itself. Crack the shell of a hazelnut and there is the smooth, round seed, with no surrounding fibrous substance. Native to Europe and Western Asia, hazelnuts are a good source of vitamin E.

Called avellanas in Spanish, hazelnuts started appearing in the mercado here in Cholula in late October. They are popular cookie and cake ingredients and can be found throughout the holiday season. In Sonora, they are used in a delicious sponge cake called rosca de las abuelas -- the grandmothers' cake. Like almonds and walnuts, they are used in sophisticated cream soups served at weddings and festive dinners. Mexican culinary lore has it that, in Colonial times, turkeys served in mole sauce were fattened with hazelnuts. Today, there are some intriguing recipes for hazelnut moles that use fruit, nuts and chiles, and are versions of the southern Mexican manchamanteles.

Another holiday treat, chestnuts, usually appear only at this time of year, probably because they are used in a traditional Spanish Christmas stuffing recipe that has been handed down in some families in Mexico. Although available in the supermarkets, I have not seen them at the local mercados, which is a good sign that they are considered a high-end ingredient. Called castaña in Spanish, these natives of Turkey are high in calcium, potassium, B vitamins and vitamin E.

Besides being used in stuffing, chestnuts are found in cream soups and in desserts such as mousse, cakes and a creamy, pudding-like puree. Castañas en almíbar -- chestnuts in syrup -- are sold in cans and often used to garnish other desserts.

Whichever nuts you decide to incorporate into your holiday cooking, keep in mind that nuts derive most of their flavor from their oils and should be kept in a cool place. Nuts in their shells will keep in cold storage for 6-12 months. Once shelled, nuts should be kept in an airtight jar in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to nine months, or in a sealed plastic bag in the freezer, where they will keep for up to two years.

Nuts are great additions to appetizers, soups, main courses and desserts. And, on their own, nuts make a great snack. The Iowa Nurses Study revealed that eating one ounce of fresh nuts a day can reduce the risk of heart disease by 60%. That makes following the recipe for guacamole con nueces (guacamole with nuts) in the Larousse de la Cocina Mexicana an even better idea. Simply add chopped fresh almonds, pecans or walnuts to your favorite guacamole recipe, using two tablespoons of chopped nuts for every pound of avocados. It doesn't get much easier or more nutritious than that.

Following are some other festive Mexican recipes, literally "from soup to nuts," including candied nuts, soups, and a few over-the-top stuffings for your holiday bird or roast.

Cream of Walnut Soup:Crema de Nuez
Chicken and Almond Soup:Sopa de Pollo y Almendras
Winter Fruit Mole with Hazelnuts:Manchamanteles con Avellanas
Almendrado: Almond Mole
Chestnut Stuffing for Poultry:Relleno de Castañas para Aves Stuffing for Christmas Turkey:Relleno para Totol de Nochebuena
Stuffed Loin of Pork:Lomo de Puerco Relleno
Almond Rompope:Rompope Almendrado
Candied Walnuts:Nueces Garapiñadas

Published or Updated on: December 21, 2008 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2008
Contact Karen Hursh Graber

Follow Karen as she travels through the Central Mexican state of Puebla, meeting local cooks, tasting the food, and collecting recipes. With over 75 recipes, plus sections on ingredients and cooking techniques, the book takes the reader on a journey through one of Mexico's oldest and most renowned culinary regions. It can be ordered online.

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