Amazing Nuts

Amazing Nuts

By Heidi Bohan

Originally published in ‘Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit- Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture’ Segrest and Krohn, December 2010


Raccoon just could not stop eating the winter store of delicious hazelnuts his grandmother had carefully set aside in a pit near the plankhouse, and he used every trick he knew to steal those nuts. When Grandma finally caught him, she gave him the black stripes he wears to this day by beating him with a fire-charred stick.

Fortunately, today it is much easier to get that stash of nuts to add to your traditional foods diet. Our native hazelnuts and acorns, along with locally grown walnuts, filberts (commercially grown hazelnuts) and sweet chestnuts are widely available. Further away we get almonds grown in California, sunflower seeds from the prairies, pine nuts from the southwest or Europe, and pecans native to the southeast.

In the past native hazelnuts were harvested in the fall and stored in dry pits to eat as snacks. Acorns were harvested from the native oak and also buried in pits outdoors to allow the rain to leach out the bitter tannins until they were sweet and could be used in soups and stews. Though they did not make up a major part of the diet here, they were nonetheless an important regular addition to the diet common throughout much of the northwest. Eating small amounts of nuts daily should continue to be part of a traditional food diet.

Nuts are delicious, high in protein and full of Omega 3, the good fat which is also found in salmon. For this reason and others, numerous studies have shown that nuts are surprisingly important for preventative health.

  • Studies have conclusively shown that people who eat just a few nuts a day have 60% fewer heart attacks than those who eat nuts less than once per month. The beneficial effect of nut consumption to reduce heart attacks was found for men, women, vegetarians, meat-eaters, fatter people, thinner people, the old, the young and those who did a lot or a little exercise.

Further, eating just a few nuts a day

  • Reduces the risks of having a stroke
  • Helps reduce heart disease
  • Helps prevent Type 2 Diabetes
  • Reduces chances of developing dementia, advanced macular degeneration and gallstones
  • Calculations suggest that daily nut eaters gain an extra five to six years of life free of coronary disease, and that regular nut eating appears to increase longevity by about 2 years.

To gain these health benefits it is best that nuts be raw, and not roasted because high heat reduces many of the health benefits. Since nuts are very high in calories it is also important to use nuts to replace other high-calorie foods rather than increase your calorie intake. So instead of eating high-calorie, processed foods such as potato chips for a snack, consider a handful of nuts or some nut butter on whole grain toast, crackers or apple slices.

Traditionally the acorn from Quercus garryana, known today as Oregon White Oak or Garry Oak, was used in soups after being leached of tannins in pits. Sweet chestnuts, which are not native but grow well here in the Northwest, can be used in the same way and add a nice texture and flavor to soups such as butternut squash or mushroom soup. Both of these nuts can be made into flour by drying and grinding them to be used in place of a portion of flour (but not all) for baked goods such as muffins and pancakes.

If you can ward off squirrels and jays, our native hazelnut, Corylus cornuta, is a wonderful addition to the diet. Markets carry ‘filberts’ which are the same nut but a different variety from Europe and are grown here in the northwest, one of the only areas in the world to grow them commercially. Walnuts come in two forms; the very hard-shelled American native ‘black walnut’ and the more commonly known and softer shelled ‘English’ or ‘Persian’ walnut. There are many walnut trees growing in our neighborhoods, and it is possible to get up to 125 pounds from a single tree. Both hazelnuts and walnuts should be ‘cured’ by drying in a warm place right after harvest, then stored in a cool dry room.

Easy ways to incorporate raw nuts in the diet include adding walnuts or hazelnuts to morning oatmeal and eating raw nut butter with slices of apples or celery sticks. You can make your own nut butters using a food processor or a mortar and pestle. Nuts can be used in stuffing, croquettes and patties, cookies, salads, in pesto (nuts ground with herbs and oil into a paste) and seasoned and lightly roasted for snacks. Nuts can be ground into flour and used in pastries. Nut oils such as hazelnut oil and walnut oil can be used in salad dressings or for light cooking.

Nuts are considered an important part of sustainable agriculture because they require minimal care and provide an important source of fat and protein not provided in most vegetables crops. Many cultures have relied on nuts as a mainstay for good reason, and it is time to bring nuts back into focus for healthy, traditional food meals.

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