Holiday nuts

This year have a holiday dinner with nuts in as many dishes as possible, including this hazelnut brownie torte with espresso and goat cheese. (Chicago Tribune/Bonnie Trafelet)


That's what we have to say to the arrival of the holidays.

We say it not to bemoan the rampant consumerism the season brings, though. Nor to complain about the sudden (some might say traumatic) accumulation of family members in one location, or the incredible alacrity with which money disappears from our bank accounts this time of the year. (Like sands through the hourglass, so are the dollars of our paychecks.)

We simply happen to love eating nuts. Once the weather gets nippy, we always begin storing ideas for winter feasts. This year, nuts naturally came to mind.

Maybe it's because nuts have been getting some great press lately, for the amazing amount of nutrients that they contain in their cute little packages. (According to the Yale-New Haven Nutrition Advisor, most nuts contain significant doses of the antioxidant vitamin E, protein, dietary fiber, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and folate.)

They're relatively high in calories, it's true. The nuts Americans consume most _ peanuts (technically a legume, but nutty enough for our purposes), walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios_hover between 550 and 660 calories per 3.5 ounces, and about 80 percent of those calories come from fat. But it's healthful fat that may help prevent heart disease and lower blood pressure.

Yes, the more we know about nuts, the more enamored of them we become. So we have to wonder: Where have the nutty holiday traditions gone? And by that we do not mean the escapades of your mild-mannered uncle, the one who removes his clothing after a couple of eggnogs. We mean, quite literally, chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But we'd settle for the hand-carved wooden bowl that once appeared in every home as part of the holiday tradition. The last time we saw a nutcracker in December, it was onstage, wearing a giant leotard, dancing along to Tchaikovsky.

So we're starting a modern tradition: nuts to the holidays. And to get things off to a rollicking start, this year we'll have a holiday dinner with nuts in as many dishes as possible. Is that too nutty?

Know your nuts

Almonds: All of the U.S. commercial almond crop is grown in California, and it supplies almost 80 percent of the world market. Long recognized for its delicate flavor, pleasant texture and healthfulness (one ounce has almost 35 percent of the daily value for vitamin E), the almond (which is actually a fruit related to the plum), was known as a commodity on the Silk Road, according to the Almond Board; the trees were brought to California in the 1700s by Franciscan padres, who planted the trees at missions along the coastline's El Camino Real.

Cashew: There's a reason you've probably never seen a cashew still in its shell. Cashews, native to Brazil, grow opposite the stem end of the cashew apple, which is a "false fruit"; actual fruit is what we know as the nut. Even more vexing, the "apple" rots quickly once it falls to the ground, still attached to the "nut," which is in turn surrounded by a caustic substance similar to poison ivy, which is so strong it is sometimes used to burn off warts, according to The Oxford Companion to Food. But the nuts are so delicious!

Hazelnuts: Aka filberts and cobnuts, hazelnuts have grown wild since the days of primitive man and been cultivated since classical times in many parts of the world. It is the most distinctly flavored nut _ "so individual that it cannot be described by reference to another," according to the writer Waverley Root, who then goes a little daffy comparing their flavor to other foods ("the elusive aroma of some mushrooms"). In addition, according to the International Dried Fruit and Nut Foundation, the hazelnut is "present in the Greek-Roman Mythology and in the Bible, always mentioned for its extraordinary nutritional and healing values, even as a tool for finding buried treasures and subterranean streams of water."

Peanut: Not a nut, strictly speaking, but a legume, peanuts have the most inspiring story in American history, thanks to the former slave and agricultural visionary George Washington Carver. In the early 1900s, he discovered more than 300 uses for what had previously been considered livestock feed. Two peanut farmers have been elected president: Thomas Jefferson and Jimmy Carter.

Pecan: Georgia is the country's largest producer of pecans. They are the only tree nut native to America, and Thomas Jefferson was nuts for them, planting hundreds of trees (which are known to live hundreds, even thousands, of years); he probably never would have guessed that someday pecans would be "the first fresh food consumed on space flights by American astronauts. Apollo 13 (1970) and Apollo 14 (1971) crew members enjoyed fresh, raw pecan kernels from vacuum-packed plastic packages," according to the Texas Pecan Board.

Pistachio: The seed of the Persian Pistacia vera tree, the pistachio is native to Asia Minor and has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. It was not until they were imported to the United States, however, that someone got the hot idea of dying "the smiling nut" (as they are known in Turkey) bright red. According to John Mariani's "Dictionary of Food and Drink," that tradition is said to have started at the hands of a Brooklyn street vender named Zaloom, who wanted to make his pale brown nuts stand out.

Walnut: The provenance of the walnut is largely unknown _ some say it's from what was known as Persia, and the California walnut is actually a Persian walnut. But according to the California Walnut Board, walnuts are the oldest tree food known to man, dating back to the year 7000 B.C. They're most famous for packing the most alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid, than any other nut in the nutbowl and they protect your heart, so who cares about where they're from? Fun fact: Walnuts are not picked; they are removed from trees by a mechanical shaker.

By the numbers:

6: Number of pounds of peanuts and peanut butter the average American eats each year, according to the National Peanut Board.

810: The number of peanuts it takes to make an 18-ounce jar of peanut butter, according to the Alabama Peanut Producers Association.