A mission statement

Hello, and welcome to My Kitchen and I. Every year I choose a cuisine to explore. This year, it's the year of the Snake! And I'll be continuing to cook mostly Asian foods, particularly Chinese dishes. Have I finally found the best cuisine in the world? Come explore and cook with me and let's find out. Please feel free to share your stories and comment on anything you see here, and thanks so much for visiting. Hope you enjoy the Year of the Snake in food!


Monday, April 1, 2013

Sweet and crispy, fried honey walnuts — 核桃

After making several versions of these so-called honey walnuts, I have begun to wonder if some people might skip making the recipe they've published in their cooking book or blog. I found so many bad versions of these wonderful walnuts!

The best version so far is in Yin Fei Lo's cookbook, Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking. She notes that these nuts do not traditionally contain honey, though they are called honey walnuts.

They do taste like honey, despite the lack.

I did find several recipes that advocated using honey to make these nuts, but after trying it a few different ways with honey, I really cannot recommend it. It sounds wonderful, but you lose the crispy, snap-crackle-pop texture that makes these nuts so special. Honey picks up moisture quickly, and a few hours later the nuts have already lost their zing. Honey also seemed to burn more easily.

Another method that didn't work well was to simply roll the nuts in sugar after boiling and then frying, essentially skipping a step in the usual four-step cooking process. This is tempting to try, and I tried it, but the results were far far superior reducing the syrup on the nuts before frying. You just can't skip that step.

Nor can you skip frying and bake these nuts instead. The texture that makes these so outstanding simply requires frying.

Baking won't do. I'm sorry.

It may not be totally traditional to add soy sauce to this recipe, but it did add a certain je ne sais quoi to the finished product, so my recipe includes it. I imagine it would also be quite nice to add a little fresh, five-spice powder after frying, which I will no doubt try next. I am also wondering what a black walnut would taste like prepared this way.

There are lots of possibilities, and these nuts are just too exceptional not to keep making them, so the experiments will no doubt continue.

They do look rather brainy, don't they?
The Chinese have believed for millennia that walnuts are beneficial to the mind because they are shaped like little brains. A fanciful idea, which just happens to coincide with a little kernel of truth.

Walnuts as it happens are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids, and current research has shown them to be brainy benefactors — but only in small doses. Too many, and that particular benefit is actually lost. So a tablespoon or so of these every now and then is therapeutic, but more than that may perhaps be mere indulgence — albeit a sweet mood-lifting one.

Walnuts are called Juglia Regis, which is Latin for Jupiter's nuts. They were considered a kingly food in Rome, served mainly to nobility. In China as well, these were something you served to impress guests.

The Mandarin for walnuts is hétáo (核桃)

Several food writers and websites contend walnuts came to China as a gift from a prince of Persia to a Chinese diplomat, who subsequently grew them in the Sichuan province during retirement. A rather romantic story. I like it a lot.

But, walnuts have also been found in neolithic times around the camp fire, so in truth, I think our love affair with these nuts probably predates that wonderful little story, making the true origins of Jupiter's nut in China difficult to know for certain.

Honey walnuts are fantastic eaten plain, but even more fantastic chopped and strewn over fresh fruit, such as a sliced banana or Asian pear.

The latter makes a particularly elegant, healthful dessert. A perfect and simple way to end a healthy meal.

Here's my version — a work in progress I might add — of the Chinese classic, honey-fried walnuts, based in part on Yin Fei Lo's excellent recipe in Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking.

 Honey Walnuts with Soy Sauce

Some recipes recommended removing the skins of these walnuts to remove the bitter tannins but I will tell you that is a Sisyphean task, one that is completely unnecessary. Boiling will do. I boiled my walnuts twice for about five minutes each time, tasted one of the nuts, and found the bitterness gone.

You could certainly boil them a third time if twice doesn't do the trick. And that will still take less time  trying to remove the skins, with as one site suggested, a needle! All I can say to that is, are you kidding me?

Drain the walnuts and let them dry a little bit. You can speed this process by putting them in a warm 200 degree oven for a few minutes.

Heat 6 T water and 1 T soy sauce with 7 T sugar to each 14-oz bag of walnuts. When the sugar has dissolved add the nuts and stir continuously to coat them evenly with the syrup. Continue cooking these until the water is evaporated. Be careful not to over do this stage, as you don't want to burn them. They will look a bit like this.

Set them aside and heat some peanut oil. A thermometer doesn't hurt at this stage, but if you do not have one, then fry one walnut as a test, to ensure the oil is not too hot. You want to get the sugar coating them to a point just over 350 degrees — but no hotter — at the same time that the walnut reaches that characteristic snap-crackle-pop texture which make these nuts worth the effort.

Practice with a few nuts first to get the hang of it. The nuts on the left are too done. The nuts on the right are close, but could have cooked a little longer.

I recommend draining them on a lightly greased pan as they cool. If you put them on paper they. will. stick. And then you will have to throw them out or eat them with paper.

They will retain their crispness for about a week, after which they will still taste good, but won't have their snap crackle pop any more.

If you want to keep them crispy longer, store then in the freezer. They will be cripsy for months — if, that is, you can resist eating them all at once.

Good luck with that!

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