Nuts

84/365: National Waffle Day & National Pecan Day*

March 25th is set aside to honor not one, not two, but three separate food holidays. While we’d love to tackle all three, it is a work day, and we have other pressing demands. However, as Meatloaf (the singer, not the food) famously said, “two out of three ain’t bad.” So today we’ll celebrate National Waffle Day and National Pecan Day, but skip National Lobster Newburg Day. Besides, that’s a dish similar to National Lobster Thermidor Day, which we already celebrated in January.

In the Rules section of this blog, I even mentioned today specifically: When there are multiple selections on a given day, we only have to try one. However, if we can incorporate more than one, we will. Using the March 25th example, if it’s Pecan Day and Waffle Day, we’ll make Pecan Waffles!

I guess we’re making Pecan Waffles, then!

I already talked about the history of waffles earlier this month, but I didn’t mention Cornelius Swarthout. He is credited with filing the first patent for the modern waffle iron in 1869. His patent (you can take a look at it here – it’s surprisingly detailed and complex) took a cast-iron skillet and added a hinged lid, with a divider for individual waffles. 42 years later, the electric waffle iron was invented by Thomas Steckbeck of General Electric, with a built-in thermometer to prevent the waffles from burning. But perhaps the most interesting waffle-inspired invention of all belongs to Bill Bowerman, track and field coach at the University of Oregon in the 1960s. Bowerman used his wife’s waffle iron to develop a sole for running shoes that was light and grippable. Hopefully he told her this before she made breakfast! Flush with success at the U of O, Bowerman started an athletic footwear distribution company with Phil Knight called Blue Ribbon Sports, which they renamed Nike. His Waffle Trainer (real name) shoe helped catapult Nike to international success in 1974.

Pecan is a species of hickory tree and is the only nut native to North America (other than Phil Spector). It comes from an Algonquin word meaning “a nut requiring a stone to crack.” Doesn’t get much more literal than that, folks. Like other nuts-that-aren’t-nuts (I’m thinking of you, almond), the pecan isn’t a true nut either, but rather the seed of a fruit. Potato, po-tah-to. Native Americans valued pecans as a food source because they provide 2-5 times more calories per unit weight than wild game, and can be eaten as is. Pecans that fall to the ground are still edible the following year, which I guess makes them nature’s leftovers. They were quite popular with Colonial Americans; Thomas Jefferson planted pecan trees at his home in Monticello, and after giving some to George Washington, he in turn planted pecan trees at his home in Mount Vernon. The U.S. grows 80-95% of the world’s pecan crop, with Georgia and Texas the top two pecan-producing states.

We had breakfast for dinner tonight, which allowed us plenty of time to make some tasty pecan waffles. Just a sprinkling of pecans in the batter, and the result was scrumptious!

That’s how you kill two birds with one stone, folks.

Pecan Waffles

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Categories: Breakfast, Nuts | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

70/365: National Oatmeal Nut Waffle Day

Today is one of the stranger food holidays this year. Not the ingredients themselves so much as the combination of ingredients. Oatmeal, nuts, and waffles are all celebration-worthy (and each, in fact, has its own national food holiday). But whoever heard of oatmeal nut waffles? It’s an oddly random day to celebrate. But as I’ve said before, we don’t make the rules, we only follow them. So a hearty, happy National Oatmeal Nut Waffle Day to you and yours!

Waffles are essentially communion wafers on steroids. The two emerged at the same time, in the 9th century, and both were initially flavorless discs made with grain flour and water. Early waffle pans were made of iron and depicted images of Jesus and the crucifixion. It took 200 years for folks to realize that waffles might taste decent if they had a little flavor, so ingredients like orange blossom water and honey were added. The first known waffle recipe was published in the 14th century, and read: Beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt and add wine. Toss in some flour, and mix. Then fill, little by little, two irons at a time with as much of the paste as a slice of cheese is large. Then close the iron and cook both sides. If the dough does not detach easily from the iron, coat it first with a piece of cloth that has been soaked in oil or grease. Hey…why isn’t today National Wine Waffle Day?! Harumph. Modern waffle irons first appeared in the 15th century, with the classic grid shape emerging soon after. Waffle recipes became more sophisticated, with the additions of sugar, butter, and eggs. Dry waffle mix was developed in the 1930s, and the Dorsa brothers from San Jose, California developed a frozen waffle they went on to name Eggo in 1953. Belgian waffles – larger and lighter thanks to the addition of yeast in the batter – were introduced at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and quickly became popular. Americans liked the texture and the bigger squares and deeper pockets, perfect for holding melted butter, syrup, spare change, and lint.

In researching recipes for oatmeal nut waffles, I discovered something interesting: they are very healthy, made with whole wheat flour, and honey in place of sugar. Flush with my baking success yesterday, I whipped up a batch this morning while Tara was getting ready for work, using pecans for the nuts.The waffles were very dense and not at all sweet, but that’s why they invented syrup. Overall they had a good flavor. Tara and I talk about opening a restaurant someday, and these would be a good addition for the health nut/vegan crowd. I doubt I’d make them again, but they did turn out pretty good.

Oatmeal Nut Waffles

Categories: Breakfast, Nuts | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

67/365: National Peanut Cluster Day

Today we celebrate peanuts. And chocolate. Together in one sweet, salty little bundle. It’s National Peanut Cluster Day!

Peanut clusters have been around for about a hundred years or so. The Standard Candy Company of Nashville, Tennessee came out with the GooGoo Cluster, a round candy bar containing marshmallow, caramel, and peanuts, covered in chocolate. It is considered the first combination candy bar, made up of several different types of candy rather than an all-chocolate chocolate bar. Kind of like the mutt of the candy bar kennel, if we’re stretching for analogies here. During the Great Depression, the marketing slogan for GooGoo Clusters proclaimed them “a nourishing lunch for a nickel.” The FDA would have a field day with that today.

Here’s an interesting story on a company whose own peanut cluster recipe dates back to 1912 or 1913. They are bucking the manufactured-by-machine trend and bringing back their original recipe peanut clusters, making each one by hand. If you happen to be in Bryan, Ohio, stop by the Spangler Store & Museum and pick some up!

I bought peanut clusters from the bulk foods section at WinCo. I doubt they were handmade, but they still tasted pretty good! It’s hard to go wrong with that combination of sweet and salty. Just ask the folks who created chocolate covered bacon (which, unfortunately, is not a food holiday). Tara and I ate them in the car on the drive to Seattle, where we’re headed for the weekend.

Chocolate Peanut Clusters

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60/365: National Peanut Butter Lover’s Day*

Today we had a sticky dilemma: should we pay homage to peanut butter or fruit compote? It’s Friday and we’ve got plans tonight, so we decided to go the easy route. Besides, January 24 was a dual food holiday, but we chose lobster thermidor over peanut butter then. Today makes up for it. Happy Peanut Butter Lover’s Day!

(The other holiday was just Peanut Butter Day. Today is more special. Like Virginia, it’s for LOVERS).

Then again, Tara doesn’t exactly “love” peanut butter, but that’s just a small technicality…

Several people claim to have invented peanut butter, but the Aztecs were the first to turn peanuts into paste, around 950 B.C. Boy, those guys had their hands in a lot of early foods, didn’t they? We can thank John Harvey Kellogg, the cereal baron, for attempting to modernize peanut butter: in 1895 he patented a process for creating peanut butter out of raw peanuts. He served this early version to patients at his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. “They’re gr-r-reat!!” these patients declared, but they were talking about Frosted Flakes. Kellogg’s nuts were steamed instead of roasted, which sounds painful and translated into a rather bland flavor profile. Dr. Ambrose Straub invented a better peanut butter making machine in 1903. In 1922 a chemist named Joseph Rosefield developed a process for making peanut butter that was smooth and creamy, and would keep fresh for a year. He sold his invention to Swift & Company, who changed their name soon after to Peter Pan. A few years later he was like, what have I done, this invention is a goldmine, and started his own company, Skippy, in 1932. In 1934 he created the first chunky peanut butter. In 1958 Procter & Gamble got in on the action by introducing Jif; now they operate the world’s largest peanut butter plant, churning out 250,000 jars a day.

Fun fact: a slang term for peanut butter during World War II was “monkey butter.” Whoever came up with that was bananas.

Today was a rare challenge that Tara and I completed separately, due to time constraints and work schedules. I had a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch (Extra Crunchy Skippy – thank you, Mr. Rosefield!), while she indulged in a Reese’s peanut butter-filled chocolate egg.

PB&J

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57/365: National Pistachio Day

Today’s holiday honors a food that appears to be smiling back at us: the pistachio. Aww. I almost feel guilty eating the poor little fella.

Key word: “almost.”

Aww. They're smiling!

Aww. They’re smiling!

Pistachios have been around since at least 6750 BC. They grow on trees and are related to mangoes, sumac, and poison ivy…so if you’re itching for a handful of pistachios, now you know why! They are native to the Middle East, and are believed to have grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Like almonds, pistachios are the seed of a fruit rather than a genuine nut, like Charlie Sheen. Pistachio trees were introduced to the U.S. in 1854, and grown commercially beginning in the early 20th century.

In the Middle East, pistachios are referred to as “the smiling nut” and in Iran they are called “the happy nut.” In America, those nicknames belong to Lindsey Lohan and Gary Busey, accordingly. (These “crazy celebrity” jokes never get old!). They are very healthy for you (the nuts, not the celebrities), containing more antioxidants per serving than green tea. They are a great source of fiber, copper, manganese, and vitamin B6. The shells are recyclable, too: you can use them as kindling with crumpled paper to start a fire, line the bottom of houseplant pots with them to provide drainage and soil retention, and use them as mulch for plants and shrubs. The shells are sometimes dyed red or green because holiday colors are festive and pretty!! Actually, it was to hide the stains from the grubby farmhands who used to pick the fruit by hand, but nowadays pistachios are machine-harvested, so dyeing is rarely performed anymore.

For today’s challenge, we wanted to do a little bit more than just open a bag of pistachios and eat a handful. So, we opened a bag of pistachios and ate a handful…AND we made pistachio-flavored instant pudding. Double pistachio whammy, people!

Pistachios

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47/365: National Almond Day

Some of these food holidays are downright nutty. Take, for instance, today: it’s National Almond Day!

Actually, I should strike that joke from the blog, because it turns out almonds aren’t true nuts at all – they are actually a fruit, more closely related to cherries and plums than to cashews or walnuts. The almond “nut” is the seed of the green, fleshy fruit. I guess the folks at Almond Joy never got the memo; their candy bar slogan – “Almond Joy’s got nuts, Mounds don’t” – is just plain wrong (not to mention grammatically clunky to begin with). In truth, Almond Joy’s got fruit, Mounds don’t.

Almonds are native to the Middle East, where they grew like weeds in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and were one of the first trees domesticated by man. Most ancient civilizations relied on almonds as a food source; they date back to 4000 B.C. They are mentioned numerous times in the Bible, where they were revered as symbols of divine approval and hope. The Book of Genesis calls almonds “among the best of fruits,” and almond branches were a symbol of the virgin birth of Jesus. In fact, many paintings depict almonds circling the baby Jesus (though it could be that the artists had merely worked up hearty appetites while slapping oil on canvas). King Tut was buried with several handfuls of almonds when he died, in order to nourish him on his journey to the afterlife. I’d have preferred a pizza myself, but maybe all their Round Tables were closed for the night.

Cultivated almonds are delicious and nutritious, but wild almonds are another story. Their kernels contain prussic acid, a fancy name for cyanide, and are deadly if eaten raw. Domesticated almonds are safe due to a genetic mutation that eliminated the toxic substance.Today, nearly 80% of all almonds in the world are grown in California. Earlier attempts to grow the fruit in southern states were unsuccessful due to killing frosts and high humidity, but the Golden State’s climate proved to be ideal for these little suckers.

We could have just eaten a handful of almonds to celebrate today’s holiday, but it’s the weekend and we wanted to get creative, so we decided on a chicken teriyaki stir-fry topped with slivered almonds. It was a delicious combination!

Stir-fry with slivered almonds

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26/365: National Peanut Brittle Day

Today is National Peanut Brittle Day. Why we call this hard candy “brittle” is a mystery, for it is anything but. Liable to break or shatter easily? Peanut brittle sometimes requires a mallet to break apart into pieces!

OK, I exaggerate. And I have to say, it’s really, really good. Tara’s mom sent us a bunch of treats for Christmas, including homemade brittle. Why we didn’t save a little bit for today is a good question! 

Brittles are one of the oldest candies around. When not busy hunting leprechauns or picking four-leaf clovers, the Irish enjoyed eating sugar coated peanuts as snacks. They began adding syrup, and brittle was born. There are many variations around the world. The Greeks have pasteli, the French have croquant, Indians have Gacchac, and Canadians have peanut brittle, eh. In the Middle East it’s made with pistachios, and in Asia, a mixture of sesame seeds and peanuts.

When we began this challenge, I wondered if anybody else had attempted it. I scoured the internet, but could find no similar quest. And then a couple of days ago I stumbled upon a blog in which somebody did, in fact, attempt to do the same thing in 2011. He took a similar approach to us, and I was impressed with his posts, until they ended abruptly in May. I wasn’t sure if he burned out at that point, so I sent him an email, and he was kind enough to respond. The guy’s name is John, he lives twenty miles outside of New York City, and he did in fact complete his own holiday food odyssey – but was stymied by a computer that died and a lack of technological and social media savviness. He has been very supportive of our own attempt, is impressed with this blog, and has been quick to offer tips and advice. He wrote, “From time to time you may get sick of foods or desserts or whatever it may be. But I’m not sensationalizing or exaggerating when I say it changed my life. Food history is an amazing over looking part of history I think. I learned so much about culture and different time periods just be researching these meals. Also, growing up predominantly eating the meals of my grandmother from Italy, I became aware of this whole “American” culture in cuisine. I think you’re going to learn more than you expect.” 

Tara workin' that candy thermometer to the "hard crack" stage.

Tara workin’ that candy thermometer to the “hard crack” stage.

Thanks, John! Tara and I have already learned a lot, and feel like our own food horizons are expanding with each day that goes by. If you don’t mind, you can be our official “culinary consultant.” I may have a need for suggestions as we plow our way through the year!

Back to today. We sort of found ourselves scrambling late in the day, because our calendar had erroneously listed National Pistachio Day twice: January 26 AND February 26. So much for the bag of nuts we had sitting on the counter. A quick run to the grocery store yielded no peanut brittle, but Tara had a recipe in her trusty Fannie Farmer cookbook, and whipped together a batch of brittle. Start to finish, it took less than an hour – and turned out very tasty!

Categories: Candy, Nuts | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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