Focus on: Nuts

From appetizers  to desserts, nuts come into play in every section of the menu. Almonds, walnuts, peanuts and pecans are the most prevalent foodservice buys, but pistachios, pine nuts, cashews, macadamias and hazelnuts are gaining popularity as a way to differentiate a menu item.

In addition to the many varieties, nuts are available in several forms, both in the shell and shelled. The latter come whole, halved, chopped, diced and ground in package sizes that range from a 2-pound bag to a 30-pound case. Value-added products—nuts that are toasted, salted, spiced, glazed or otherwise enhanced—are also a growing category.

At Diamond Foods in San Francisco, California, walnuts are the main focus, but the company offers a full line of recipe-ready culinary nuts for foodservice. The line includes everything from pine nuts and chopped hazelnuts to fancy pecan halves, sliced almonds and walnut halves and pieces, packed in 2- and 5-pound controlled atmosphere reclosable bags to preserve freshness. Diamond has also increased production of glazed nuts (both walnuts and pecans), as well as roasted and salted nuts. “There’s more demand by restaurants for glazed walnuts in salad applications and desserts,” says Dick Wolf, VP of Global Ingredients, Food Service and International Sales. These come in 20-ounce packages under the Emerald brand.

Think about the application before you spec a particular nut, recommends Harbinder Maan, manager, North America Ingredient and Category Marketing for the Almond Board of California. “Almonds are available in more processed forms than almost any other nut. Kernels can be cut into different shapes or pieces, such as slices, slivers, dice, half or split, ground, paste, butter, etc. And each type of cut can have a different thickness or particle size.” She explains that natural forms (with skins on) are appealing choices to complement light colored foods. But most almond varieties can be easily blanched to remove the skins prior to further cutting. These creamy white forms are perfect for complementing darker colored foods. All manufactured forms (whole or cut) can be further roasted by hot air or oil to enhance their crunch and flavor.

Crunch, flavor and color are all traits to consider when evaluating a nut product for quality, points out Wolf. In an individual raw nut, look for absence of defects, characteristic color, fresh flavor with no trace of rancidity and crisp texture. When you inspect the package, check for foreign material—“it’s the number one complaint from consumers,” he says.

Packaged nuts are semi-perishable but have a long shelf life if stored properly; they will last six months or longer under refrigeration. Keep in mind that freshness dissipates quickly in a hot kitchen, so keep product away from heat sources and strong light.