Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Almonds

I married an Italian almost 10 years ago. At Italian weddings, it's traditional to give out sugar coated (or "Jordan") almonds to your wedding guests, because they represent the "bitter" (the almond) and the "sweet" (the sugar coating) aspects of marriage. We painstakingly packaged five almonds per guest in mesh bags, tying them with ribbons. It's common for the bride to carry around a basket of these little bags of Jordan almonds, giving them to wedding guests who, in turn, stick money or checks in her small, satin money bag. (We skipped the money bag part.)

The tradition of eating sugared almonds goes back to ancient Rome, where honey-coated almonds were symbols of fertility, eaten at weddings and births. In Italian (and Italian-American) culture, five almonds represent five best wishes for the bride and groom: health, happiness, wealth, fertility and longevity. Sugared almonds are also common wedding favors in Greek and Middle Eastern weddings, where the almond has been a huge part of culture and cuisine for centuries.

Lately, almonds have gotten a bad environmental rap (more on that below), but that doesn't mean we can't learn more about their culinary and agricultural history. Only you can decide if you want to keep eating them (in moderation, maybe?) - but at least you'll be informed.

A Brief History

Almonds are likely native to Western and Southern Asia. The trees were mentioned many times in the Bible; Alan Davidson, writing in The Oxford Companion to Food, says that this is the oldest mention of almond cultivation. Greeks cultivated them as early as Neolithic times, according to food historian Waverly Root, and the Romans did, too (calling them nux Graeca- Greek nut). Davidson says that the trees were introduced to Spain by Phoenician traders, and were being grown in southern France as early as the 8th century, BCE.

The trees were brought to California by Franciscan priests in the mid-18th century, but the cool coastal climate wasn't friendly to almond cultivation. It wasn't until the late 19th century that cross-breeding (and a move inland) created the foundation of the state's modern almond industry.   

Factual Nibbles

  • Fun with linguistics: the word almond comes from the Greek amygdala. Those of you up on your anatomy also know that the amygdala is a part of the brain (almond-shaped, of course) important for emotional behavior and motivation. 
  • Speaking of anatomy, according to Waverly Root, writing in his book Food, another name for the almond is "tonsil plum." Yummy!
  • Think almond milk is just another trend perpetuated by modern ignorant hipsters? Think again: the nut milk was a vital component of medieval European cookery. One of the most famous dishes in the Middle Ages in Europe was blancmanger, today a dessert, but back in the day a savory (-ish?) dish made with chicken, sugar, rice and almond milk.
  • Almonds and almond trees show up frequently in art, like in Vincent Van Gough's Almond Blossom (1890 ) or Edouard Manet's Almonds, Currants and Peaches (1869).

Cultivation

Almonds (Prunus amygdalus) are the nuts of lovely almond trees. Like the fruit in their fellow genus Prunus(including apricots, cherries, plums and peaches), almonds have beautiful flowers that eventually turn into fruit. Almond fruits are fuzzy and green, and can be eaten whole. When the fruit splits, the seed inside is revealed, coated in a hard shell covered with little tiny holes. This shell is removed, revealing the edible part of the almond seed.

The US (and California in particular) is the top almond growing country in the world. According to the USDA, California accounts for 80 percent of the world's almonds. In 2012, the industry was worth $4.3 billion. Spain, Australia, Morocco and Iran are the other top global producers.   

Nonpareli, Butte and Mission are the most common varieties of almond grown in the US, chosen due to their size and ease in blanching. Unfortunately, this has left less popular almonds, like the Princess almond, vulnerable to going extinct because of its unreliability for large-scale production. Princess almonds are ideal for home growers since they have the convenience of thin shells, making them easy for a gardener/chef to peel. And as they are an especially sweet variety, they perform delectably in a dessert or pastry. Currently there is one remaining Princess almond tree left in full production, a tree residing in the Sierra Nevada and likely reaching the venerable age of 130 (clearly not a smoker). Despite being ignored for decades, the tree - upon rediscovery - is still producing strongly, indicating that Princess almonds are highly suitable for longstanding cultivation. Yet, since the variety never gained notoriety, the Princess almond could soon be lost forever. And is that any way to treat royalty?

Seasonality

Almonds are harvested in California from mid-August through October.

Environmental Impact 

As almonds' popularity rises and California's drought has no end in sight, a lot has been said about the environmental impact of the nuts. Mother Jones broke down how much water it takes to produce one almond (1.1 gallons) and criticized almond milk drinkers. NPR highlighted the plight of wild salmon in California, as water from the Klamath River is diverted to grow almonds and other agricultural products. And we reported on the water wars between government and big almond producers like Roll Global (parent company of FIJI water) who are pumping water for almond production like nobody's business. Since then, there's been a backlash to all of the almond backlashes, with lots of articles pointing out that California's beef and dairy industries are the real water-suckers in the agriculture vs. water equation.

So, should you eat almonds? Of course, we can't tell you what to eat or not eat, but you may be better off eating organic (more on that, below) almonds and almond products in moderation, and cutting down on meat consumption if you're worried about the role your food choices play in agricultural water use.

Unfortunately, water isn't the only environmental issue when it comes to almond production. Growers rely on honeybees to pollinate their almond crop. As Tom Philpott reported, 60 percent (!) of the US's managed honeybees pollinate almonds in California - and these bees are being exposed to, as Philpott put it, a "cocktail of pesticides," which are likely causing recent, large die-offs.         

Characteristics and What to Look for

The nuts are generally classified into "sweet", the type we eat out of hand, and "bitter", which are used to make some almond extracts and oils. Almonds are processed into a dizzying array of shapes and sizes. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Raw: as the Salt explains, raw almonds in the US aren't actually raw. That's because, by law, almonds must be pasteurized - either by steam or by fumigation with a chemical called propylene oxide.
  • Roasted: almonds can be dry-roasted (without oil) or coated in oil. It's super easy to roast almonds at home
  • Blanched: these are raw almonds that have been covered in boiling water for a few minutes, which makes their brown skins easily slip off.
  • Slivered: almonds that have been blanched and sliced into thin sticks. Here's how you can do it at home.
  • Sliced: these are roasted or raw (skin on) almonds that have been cut into very thin slices.
  • Green: almonds that have been harvested early. Green almonds can be eaten whole (i.e., the entire fruit) or can be hulled to get to the seed inside.

Nutrition and effects on the body

Almonds are loaded with fiber, fat, calories and protein. They're an excellent source of Vitamin E, Riboflavin, Niacin and Thiamin. They contain a great deal of minerals, too - and are great sources of magnesium, manganese, calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium. Almonds may protect against heart disease and may also aid in weight loss - here are more health reasons to eat almonds. Bitter almonds contain some hydrogen cyanide, and are difficult to obtain in the US.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Almonds are a versatile nut, making themselves at home in both savory and sweet dishes. There are so many almond products, like:

  • Almond butter: usually made from roasted almonds (but sometimes from raw) that have been ground into a peanut-butter like paste. Use as a sub for peanut butter in your favorite recipes.
  • Almond paste and marzipan: both made from ground almonds mixed with sugar to form a paste; the difference between the two has to do with how much sugar vs. almond is in the mix. Nigella Lawson breaks it down.
  • Almond milk: made from almonds blended with water (and sometimes sugar) and strained. It's used as a replacement for dairy or soy milk.
  • Almond meal and almond flour: Almond meal is made from almonds ground with their skins on, while almond flour is made from ground, blanched almonds. Here's more on the difference.
  • Almond oil: Pressed from the sweet almond seeds, almond oil is pleasantly nutty tasting.

Storage

I like to store almonds and almond products (like oil) in the refrigerator to hold off rancidity.

Recipe

Sweet and Salty Roasted Almonds (with two variations)

I've been making variations of this recipe for years - they make great host or holiday gifts. Here, I've given you two different variations to try with different spice mixtures.

Ingredients:

Version 1:

3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ cups unsalted whole, raw almonds
1 tablespoon water

Version 2:

3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ cups unsalted whole, raw almonds
1 tablespoon water

Cooking spray

Method:

1. For either version: line a rimmed cookie sheet with tin foil and spray with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. For version 1: In a medium bowl, combine sugar, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes and salt. Mix in almonds, then water. Stir to combine and to coat the almonds with the mixture. Spread on cookie sheet in a single layer.

For version 2 :In a medium bowl, combine sugar, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper and salt. Stir to combine. Mix in almonds, then water. Stir to combine and to coat the almonds with the mixture. Spread on cookie sheet in a single layer.

3. For either version: Bake, stirring often, for 15-20 minutes or until very fragrant. Remove from oven and, using a fork, stir to separate. Cool completely.