“We love nuts; they are such a great protein for vegetarian dishes,” says Heidi DeCosmo, research and development chef for Morrison Management Specialists. “We have a bulgur wheat salad with toasted almonds that is very popular on the salad bar. It can also be used as a stuffing, like in zucchini or acorn squash, cooked right in there. We also make a pear pecan salad with baby lettuce, which is great for fall, with fresh pears, toasted pecans and dried cranberries. We serve that at an action station, made to order.”
Nuts appear in many items at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.
“We have a Mongolian Grill, and we’ll do a lot of dishes with nuts there, like cashew chicken,” says Brian Marquardt, associate director of Dining Services. “We also serve desserts with nuts. There’s always fruit with walnuts, pecans or sunflower seeds on the top or on the side. We have banana bread with walnuts, Texas sheet cake with tree nuts and macadamia nut cookies. It’s hard to avoid nuts or nut oils when it comes to making cookies.”
Nuts long shelf life make them a great addition to salad bars.
“We make a lot of gourmet salads for specials,” says Adam Strauss, executive chef, Orange Regional Medical Center, Middletown, N.Y. “We make candied walnuts with brown sugar and honey, which we serve over baby greens with goat cheese. We also use pecans on salads. We have a red leaf and greens salad with orange segments, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese.”
Nuts also go well with fish, says Strauss.
“We use a farm-raised fillet of tilapia, lightly encrusted with ground toasted pecans and bread crumbs, which we toss in the oven to get a nice outer layer, while inside the fish is flaky and moist,” he explains. “We also do a tilapia amandine with sliced almonds instead of crushed, so you can see the whole slivers, making it more identifiable.”
Everyone knows about peanut butter, but other nuts lend themselves well to similar treatment, notes Rachel Noirot, R.D., a dietitian for Dining Services at Indiana University, in Bloomington.
“Peanuts and other nuts, such as almonds, walnuts and pecans, are used in recipes regularly on campus, as they are of high nutritional value, with healthy mono-unsaturated fats,” Noirot says. “We’re opening up a new organic foods store called Union Market, where we will sell a variety of nut butters, like almond, soy and natural peanut, which students can purchase with their meal points.”
With the popularity of local sourcing, geography can play a role in nut usage—hazelnuts, for example, are grown in the U.S., primarily in Washington and Oregon.
“We use them in all kinds of things, especially in breading, like a hazelnut-encrusted halibut bake,” says Tom Driscoll, foodservice director at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “We’ll do hazelnut-encrusted tofu and vegetarian tempeh skewers We also make our own candied walnuts and pecans for salads.”
Starring role: Exotic nuts also have their place in non-commercial cooking.
“We work with marcona almonds wrapped with bacon,” says Dave McHugh, executive chef at San Diego State University. Marcona almonds, imported from Spain, are referred to as the "queen of almonds.” They are rounder, sweeter and softer than the California variety and are high in vitamin E.
“Another popular item has been a pecan-encrusted chicken tenderloin on a bamboo skewer,” says McHugh. “We pair that with a translucent vanilla maple hickory dipping sauce. We pop in vanilla beans and they suspend in this clear sauce. They stay put without settling. We also do a pistachio-encrusted rack of lamb, slightly roasted, with that rare look, contrasting nicely with that bright green pistachio crust.”
Pistachios play a starring role in one of McHugh’s dishes for catered events.
“We take toasted pistachios and hit them in a food processor—not fine but like a coarse sawdust—then set that aside,” says McHugh. “We take red seedless grapes and smear them with processed port wine cheese. Then we take dried goji berry, or wolfberry, and chop them to add to the pistachio like a breading. You roll the grapes in that. We call it a port wine truffle with goji berry and pistachio. Incorporating chopped pistachio into breading adds a nice color and flavor profile.”
“We use nuts in main dishes and in just about all of our baked products,” says Mark LoParco, director of dining services at the University of Montana in Missoula. “They add a lot to our cuisine and our flavor profile. We use chopped nuts in parfaits and we use nuts in a lot of breading. There are many Asian recipes with nuts, like kung pao chicken with peanuts. And we just made a pork chop dish with apple nut stuffing. Whatever dish we make, if the recipe calls for nuts, we include it in the title, like chicken and walnuts, trout amandine, or cashew and wild rice salad.”
“We use nuts in many of our Asian dishes, like beef and peanut stir-fry,” says Beth Rosenberger, foodservice manager at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “The kids like nuts. We had one dish that was very popular, tortellini with walnuts and pine nuts. It’s a nice and simple vegetarian dish with olive oil and garlic. We had to do away with the pine nuts because the price went up and it just became too expensive for our budget. But we still make that dish with the walnuts and it remains a popular choice.”
Use with caution: As versatile as nuts can be, using them can be problematic because of the potential for triggering adverse reactions in customers who are allergic to nuts.
“You have to be careful with nuts,” says Linda Nardella, director of dining at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass. “We have a nut-free kitchen for the students—the more awareness, the better. But we’re not nut free; we use them in baked goods. Maple pecan pies go well this time of year. We also use them in some catering items like a glazed pecan-encrusted salmon. We bake it. We make a mixture with crushed pecans, butter and sugar. It melts as it bakes. We also do pistachio-encrusted chicken breast. We coat the boneless breasts with the typical flour and egg wash, then we dredge them in crushed pistachios, no bread crumbs. We pan-fry them and finish by baking them in the oven.”
Allergies aside, nutritionally, nuts are difficult to ignore, which can make them good for school foodservice programs.
“As far as nutrition goes, nuts are great, offering an added flavor and texture,” says Diane Chapeta, nutrition program director for the Chilton (Wis.) School District. “Due to allergies, we offer no nuts in grades K-5, but in the middle school and high school we incorporate them into salads and wraps. We have a fruit and veggie bar with whatever commodity fits our budget, like walnuts or pecans. We like to offer them with dried cherries.”