Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dirty Almonds

Yesterday evening, we were heading into DC to have dinner and see a movie with some friends. One of them was driving down with us, so I invited him to stop by early and have a martini. I have already put down for posterity my thoughts about martinis, so I will do my best not to bore you with yet another diatribe about people who try to pass off vodka-based drinks as martinis. Nor will I rail yet again against the attachment of the -tini suffix to places where it clearly ought not to be.

Instead, I'll just say that when you're going to be serving someone a martini, it is a considerate and usually appreciated gesture to serve him or her an accompanying nibble. A dish of nice olives will suffice, and if I'd had no time to do anything, I'd certainly have opened a jar of Kalamatas from Trader Joe's and called it a day. But I wanted to do a little bit more than that, and I hadn't really planned ahead far enough to make marinated olives, and I had (as I always have) a large bag of almonds from Costco in the pantry, so I figured I'd make some spiced nuts.

The easiest (and possibly the best) spiced nuts are Laurie Colwin's Rosemary Walnuts. But I wasn't sure my walnuts were quite up to snuff. One of the best characteristics of the almond is its relative slowness to turn rancid. When your walnuts or your hazelnuts might have started to take on an off flavor, your almonds will still be just right. That's one of the main reasons (along with their relative inexpensiveness) that I use almonds instead of hazelnuts when I make lebkuchen. Anyway, I also wanted to do something a little more involved than the Rosemary Walnuts, so I spiced up my almonds.

I've made several recent attempts at spiced almonds, and the results had all been pleasant, but none of them had been exactly what I wanted. Even with this attempt, I had to make adjustments as I was going along, mostly to fill out the flavor profile, but what I ended up with seemed just right to me, even if it wasn't necessarily what I was going for when I set out.

Dirty Almonds

1 T. butter
1 dash Liquid Smoke
3 cups raw almonds
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. ground dried chipotle
1/2 t. smoked sweet paprika
1 T. sugar
1/4 cup dry red wine
Black pepper, to taste

In a nonstick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the Liquid Smoke and stir. Add the almonds and toss well to coat.

Mix together the salt, cumin, chipotle, and paprika. Continue to cook the almonds, tossing frequently, for three or four minutes. Sprinkle on the sugar, toss well again, and continue to cook and toss for another two minutes.

Pour the wine over the almonds. It should begin to evaporate immediately. Continue cooking and tossing until the wine has completely evaporated. Grind some pepper over the almonds, and toss again. Taste and add additional salt if necessary.

Transfer the almonds to a lined baking sheet (I use a Silpat) and put the almonds in a slow (250 - 275 Fahrenheit) oven for about ten minutes, or until dry. Let cool.

A few notes: while I generally favor kosher salt in cooking, in this case, you don't want a salt that's too coarse. You could whirl your kosher salt in your spice grinder of course. I happen to have a small collection of fancy salts that I almost never use, so I used some pink salt that I bought about eighteen months ago when I was in Manhattan and drunk. It was a ridiculous amount to pay for a container of salt, but it was probably cheaper than having another drink, and now it's sort of a souvenir. In the same vein, I have a small amount of very coarse pink salt that I picked up last year in Florence, and which I may never get around to using. But I think it's cooler than, say, a snowglobe. I also picked up a fake Rolex while I was in Florence when I happened to be sober.

I was going for a smoky flavor here, obviously, but there are other flavor profiles that would probably work equally well, so I encourage you to play around with spice combinations. The sugar caramelizes and works as a glue to make the spices adhere to the almonds. It also adds something to the flavor, but there isn't enough sugar to make the whole thing sweet. I tossed the wine in because there was a part of my palate that felt like it was being ignored, and I reasoned, correctly, that wine would give that spot some attention. It also seemed to help with the caramelization.

I'm not sure the oven period is really necessary, but it seemed like a good idea after adding the liquid to the recipe. If you put these in a bowl or container right out of the oven, they'll stick together a bit, but when they're cool, they'll break apart again easily and then they'll stay separate.

These made an awfully good accompaniment to the martinis yesterday, but I think they might be even better today. I also think they'll make a good addition to Christmas baskets. It's mid-October, so it's really getting to be time to start on my Christmas baking.


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