Almonds: Joy and Unexpected Treats

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Peanuts and almonds are two of America’s favorite nuts. But you might be surprised to learn that from a botanical perspective, two of America’s favorite nuts are not really nuts at all. Peanuts are a legume, which is basically a bean, and almonds are seeds.

From a culinary standpoint, however, we call them both nuts. A peanut is a ground nut and an almond is a tree nut. Both are fine with me.

Mixed NutsBottom line is Americans really love nuts, and as recently as 2010, studies show our yearly consumption has continued to rise to almost 4 lbs of nuts per person. Interestingly, if you leave peanuts and peanut butter out of the equation, our most preferred nuts by consumption are almonds followed by pecans and walnuts. All of these are considered tree nuts, two or three of which (the almond and walnut) are almost exclusively grown in California.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the 2012 U.S. almond crop was better than 1.7 million tons, was valued at $4.3 billion, and accounted for more than half of the U.S. tree nut production.

Almonds are also important to the United States economy. By value, almonds are the leading U.S. horticultural export commodity ($2.0 billion 2008 to 2010). Over the past 10 years, U.S. almond exports grew by 270 percent in value, with the United States currently accounting for nearly 75 percent of world almond exports in 2010.

While almonds are most often eaten on their own, we also enjoy them in many different recipes, ranging from salad toppings to Almond Chicken and desserts like Baklava.

Almonds are also a popular nut alternative for the estimated 3 million Americans who suffer from peanut allergies. They are thought to have originated in Asia thousands of years ago and may have been in desserts and breads served to the pharaohs and kings.

They were rare, and as you can imagine, VERY expensive. In that regard, not much has changed since biblical times, as almonds are still considered a premium nut in terms of cost.

My introduction to the almond wasn’t so regal. It came about, like most discoveries do–not by plan but by accident. Well, sort of.

Dateline: 1960

Place: The Fox Theater, Detroit, Michigan

Age: 7

I was accompanied by my older sister, with ticket in hand to see The Swiss Family Robinson. My sister unwittingly bought a Hershey chocolate bar with almonds instead of my usual movie fare, which was just a chocolate bar sans almonds. The curtains parted, previews rolled, and I bit into my first almond disguised in chocolate clothes. What the? I was not pleased.

Thankfully, back in those days, the almonds were mostly whole, so it was easy to eat around them. But the bits I missed and mistakenly ate, I kinda liked–not that I was going to admit that to my sister.

As the years went by, almonds and I became better acquainted. It got to the point that I actually went out of my way to PURCHASE chocolate bars with almonds. AND I enjoyed them in salads, Almond Chicken and in desserts. Please don’t tell my sister.

Over the years, I’ve used some favorite almond recipes in restaurants. As a chef, I love to share my appreciation for almonds with others.

Now you REALLY have to promise not to tell my sister.

Here is one of my favorite recipes:

Almond Crusted Chicken with Spring Greens and Maple Teriyaki Dressing

(Serves 2)

For the Almond Crusted Chicken:

Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
½ Cup         Seasoned All-Purpose Flour
1                  Extra-Large Egg
¼ Cup         Milk
½ Cup        Lightly Toasted Sliced Almonds, Chopped
¼ Cup        Unseasoned Bread Crumbs
½ Cup        Canola or Vegetable Oil

  1. Beat together egg and milk in a shallow bowl.
  2. Mix together chopped almonds and bread crumbs in a shallow bowl.
  3. Flour chicken breast in seasoned flour.
  4. Dip floured breast in egg mixture.
  5. Bread in the almond/bread-crumb mixture.
  6. Pan-fry breaded chicken in ½” oil on medium-high heat until medium brown and fully cooked.

For the Salad Mix:

2 Handfuls    Nino’s Spring Greens Mix
¼ Cup           Carrots, Matchstick
¼ Cup           Snow Peas, Julienned
¼ Cup           Red Onion, Julienned

1. Toss all salad ingredients together.

For the Maple Teriyaki Dressing:

¼ Cup        Teriyaki Glaze
2 TBSP        Rice Wine Vinegar
1 TBSP        Sesame Oil
2 TBSP        Maple Syrup (PURE)
1 tsp           Grated Fresh Ginger
1 tsp           Garlic, Minced
1 TBSP        Cilantro Leaves, Chopped
1 TBSP        Red Bell Pepper, Minced

  1. Stir together all the dressing ingredients.

To make the salad, portion greens onto service plates. Allow the almond chicken to rest after cooking until it is warm but not hot. Place chicken on salad, and dress with the Maple Teriyaki Dressing.