Nuts are a must on the festive menu, not least almonds, the most versatile of the bunch.
Nuts don't have a long shelf life, but keeping a packet or two handy at this time of year for festive entertaining is a must. Whether in a spiced mix to have with drinks, or a quick chilled nut-milk soup for a light supper, almonds are among the most versatile. And that includes smoked almonds - their salty smoked flavour adds another element to dishes, such as the pea salad here.
Blanching nuts yourself gives you a creamier nut, and almonds are a good choice since they peel the easiest. Blanch them in boiling water for 40-50 seconds, then drain them and, while they're still warm, tip them into a tea towel and rub away the skins.
The best way to store nuts, meanwhile, is in the freezer in an airtight container. We find the best place to buy nuts is usually from Middle Eastern grocers with a high turnover; your next best bet is from a good delicatessen or grocer. Keep an eye out, too, especially in fine food shops, for Marcona almonds from Spain, which are flatter and rounder than other almonds, and have a superb flavour.
Ajo blanco with jamón Ibérico
Serves 4 as a starter
Place 300gm blanched almonds and 300ml water in a bowl and leave to soften for an hour. Combine 50gm torn crustless sourdough, 1 tbsp each sherry vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil and 1 coarsely chopped garlic clove in a bowl and stand until bread plumps up (5 minutes). Transfer to a blender, add 500ml cold water and drained almonds, and blend until smooth. Season well to taste, strain through a sieve, then refrigerate to chill. Top with baby basil leaves, torn jamón Ibérico, a few extra drops of sherry vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil and a good grind of pepper, and serve chilled.
Serves 6-8 as a snack
Gently warm 100ml olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add 500gm natural almonds and stir continuously until light golden (5-10 minutes). Add ¾ tsp each cumin, fenugreek, nigella seeds, fennel seeds and a pinch of chilli powder, stir until fragrant and almonds are coated (1 minute). Transfer to a bowl lined with paper towel, scatter with 1 tbsp sea salt flakes and set aside to cool. Spiced almonds will keep in an airtight container for a week.
Smoked almond, asparagus, pea and feta salad
Serves 4 as a side or starter
Blanch 2 cups peas and 1 bunch trimmed and chopped asparagus until bright green (1-3 minutes). Drain and refresh, drain again. Place in a bowl with a handful of chopped smoked almonds and 1 thinly sliced golden shallot. Add the juice of 1 lemon and 90ml extra-virgin olive oil, season to taste and toss to combine. Stir in 80gm crumbled Persian feta, a mixed handful of torn mint and basil and serve.
Pan-fried trout with almond sauce
Blend 230gm blanched almonds, 1 chopped garlic clove, juice of 1½ lemons and 150ml water in a blender until smooth. Add 2-3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil and a good pinch of salt and pepper, and pulse until combined. Heat a large non-stick frying pan over high heat, add 1 tbsp olive oil, 20gm butter and 4 river trout fillets (about 150gm each), skin down, and fry until golden and just cooked through (2-3 minutes each side). Serve with almond sauce, lemon wedges and a salad of rocket, parsley, mint and thinly sliced shallot dressed with a lemon vinaigrette and seasoned with sumac to taste.
- To extract a deeper flavour from almonds and refresh their oils, dry-roast them in a low oven.