Thursday, 9 September 2010

Walnuts ~ autumn treasure and a hearty dinner

Continued reading of my article on pop-top jars for jam and preserves reminds me that it's harvest time in the Northern Hemisphere.  This prompts me to write about the value of walnuts and the importance of storing them suitably so they stay fresh.    

Walnuts are both delicious and nutritious and I find it surprising that so few recipes include them.  If you have your own tree I consider you to have great good fortune.  If you know someone who does, I suggest you cultivate the connection!  Walnuts are expensive to buy and not necessarily fresh.  There is a world of difference between a fresh walnut and one that has passed its best: they lose their natural sweetness and go a bit soft.

The vital point about harvesting them is to get them up off the damp ground and into a place where they can dry properly and keep relatively cool.  If they are left damp you could lose the lot to mould, as I know from experience!

They keep best in their shells.  The ones in the picture came to us months ago from generous relatives who have their own tree.  The nuts are still sweet and fresh.  There's that gorgeous apricot wood bowl again!

If shelling them  after harvesting break them as little as possible as they deteriorate more rapidly after they're broken.  I imagine they would then keep best at a very low temperature, possibly in the fridge.

Most people eat walnuts raw but they are delicious cooked.  One of our favourite recipes is Walnut Balls, based on one by Anna Thomas in her book "The vegetarian epicure, book one".  Here it is:

Walnut balls with a bechamel sauce:
This quantity makes sufficient to feed about four people with relatively hearty appetites if served with potatoes and other vegetables.

Ingredients for the balls: 
These quantities are fairly elastic.
  • 6oz (175 grams) ground walnuts (but not finely ground – they are nicest if there is still a bit of texture to them)
  • 4 oz (125 grams) grated cheese (about a cup)
  • 6 Tablespoons fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs or however much it takes to make the mixture the right consistency.  I use the blender for this.
  • Half an onion, finely chopped
  • Quarter pint of milk (imperial measure) – maybe two thirds of a cup.
  • 2 Tablespoons of parsley or rocket (not essential but nice if you have it)
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Salt
  • 2 eggs
Combine the ingredients and shape them into balls.  The mixture needs to be a consistency which can be lightly shaped into balls without being too blobby or, on the other hand, too stiff or crumbly.  As you prepare them, place them into an oiled oven dish or tray.  I bake them blind for at least 20 minutes in a moderate oven.  If the mixture is right they will puff slightly.

Ingredients for the sauce:
  • Half an onion
  • A little oil to cook the onion in
  • A pinch of nutmeg
  • A pinch of thyme
  • A small bay leaf
  • Salt
  • Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 rounded tablespoons of flour – either wholemeal or white
  • About a pint (say, three cups, maybe more) of milk.
Note: This sauce has a relatively long cooking time which means it reduces considerably.  The one problem I've had with it repeatedly is of ending up with insufficient sauce to cover the balls, so it might be worth making half as much again to be sure.  Far better to have too much than not enough! 

If you are accustomed to ‘proper’ cooking methods you may faint with disbelief at my method which is the ultimate in abbreviated technique and therefore not by definition a béchamel sauce at all.  However, the ingredients (with the exception of masses of butter) are identical.  

My method is this:
Sauté the onion until thoroughly cooked, add the herbs and cook a little more.  Now put about half of the milk and then the flour into a container with a lid that seals.  It needs room to shake around so don’t fill it over two thirds full.  Shake it briskly, then pour the liquid into the pan with the other ingredients.  This way there are few or no problems with lumps and fiddly fussing around while stirring with one hand and observing the sauce through a magnifying glass with the other, or the mess and humiliation of having to put it through the blender later to get rid of lumps - easy!!!  :-)  Add the remaining milk as well as the salt and pepper.  For the best flavour cook the sauce gently for a further ten minutes or so. It tends to catch so you will need an eye kept on it, although not too fixedly.  The classical sauce is then strained through a sieve, would you believe.  I never bother, just fish out the bay leaf and enjoy the additional texture of the bits of onion.  The thickness of the sauce needs to be somewhat custardy.

When you're happy with the sauce and the balls are ready, the sauce is then poured over the balls so that it covers them like a blanket.  Put it all back in the oven for a further fifteen or twenty minutes. You’ll see the blanket bubbling a little when it's cooked nicely.  Serve hot.  It's yummy!

Uncooked walnut balls freeze well making it a good nourishing meal-in-a-hurry on standby.

A variation of this recipe is to bake the balls entirely without sauce and pour the hot sauce over them directly from the pan when serving.  If you do this you'll see that the balls brown slightly when done.

Another variation is to serve the balls with a hot tomato sauce:
When I've had tomato preserves from the garden I've heated up a jar-full and used this by itself, which is delicious.  When I use canned tomatoes, which aren't nearly so flavoursome, I add a teaspoon of salt and one of sugar, as well as cornflour and water to expand and thicken it.  I bake the walnut balls fully by themselves and pour the hot sauce over them when serving.

I have two other walnut recipes which I'll write up another time.

My other articles about food and cooking can be found by clicking on the link below:


ElizT said...

I made a kind of walnut butter, or pesto, by grinding up walnuts, olive oil, lemon juice and parsley, I think with a bit of cheese. Sweetish and good on toast.
Also whizzed in the little hand processor was that salad: half a packet of baby leaves, half a skinned lebanese cucumber, half a ripe avocado, lemon juice and olive oil sufficient to make it puree. Plus salt and pepper. This made a bright green little bowlful which you could call either smashed salad or a dip.
A can of fruit makes posh coulis in minutes.
It all helps with the anti-obstruction diet.

Leigh said...

Thanks for sharing, ElizT - these sound good. I look forward to trying them out. :-)