Walnuts (Recipe: walnut squares)
When I was growing up, my parents hosted lots of bridge parties.
In the 1950s and '60s, card-playing evenings were all the rage. My parents invited one couple, or sometimes three couples, for bridge, cocktails and snacks. As these parties never started before 8:00, my brother and I were allowed -- no, commanded -- to appear in our pajamas to greet the guests ("Hi, Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So. Yes, it's fun to stay up late. Yes, I'm being good in school.") before we toddled off to bed.
On a tray table, within easy reach of the players, my mother set out bowls of Chex mix that she'd made herself. And whole walnuts, too, with a heavy nutcracker and a dish for the shells.
In the morning, my brother and I descended upon the leftover nuts. We didn't eat them; we looked for wrinkly faces in the wrinkly shells. Sometimes we'd find one that looked like my grandfather, or one of our teachers, or Richard Nixon.
The walnuts my mom bought -- the ones we all buy in bags in the supermarket -- are Persian walnuts, often called English or California walnuts. Their relatively thin shell, large "meat" and mild taste make them the favorite for snacking and cooking.
On the health front, walnuts are off-the-chart good for you, as they're packed with more than 90 percent of the recommended daily requirement of Omega-3 fatty acids in just a quarter of a cup of nuts. According to The World's Healthiest Foods, potential benefits range from "cardiovascular protection, to the promotion of better cognitive function, to anti-inflammatory benefits helpful in asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. In addition, walnuts contain an antioxidant compound called ellagic acid that supports the immune system and appears to have several anticancer properties."
I didn't love the taste of walnuts when I was a kid, and I guess I didn't want to work hard enough to extricate the meat from the hard shells, either. I still don't, so most often I buy them in halves or chopped, ready to go into banana-walnut pancakes, honey walnut shrimp, fudge brownies, Brussels sprouts with walnuts, sesame and thyme, blueberry-walnut crunch, Roquefort walnut savory cake, five-grain bread with walnuts or pasta with sage walnut pesto.
Like all nuts, walnuts are perishable; store them in an air-tight container, in the refrigerator for up to six months, or in the freezer indefinitely. To bring out the flavor, toast walnuts in a dry nonstick frying pan for 2-3 minutes, until they are just starting to brown lightly and give off a nutty aroma.
This recipe came from my friend Charlotte, who loves these squares because they're not too sweet. This is a quick and easy dessert for someone like me, who doesn't bake very well. Makes 18 squares.
2 cups brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 9x13 pan with baking spray.
In a large bowl, mix sugar, eggs and vanilla. Stir in flour, baking soda and salt. Add nuts, mix well, and pour into the prepared pan. Bake 18-20 minutes.