I'm a sucker for princess tales, especially when food is involved.
According to Greek mythology, the lovely princess Phyllis was dumped at the altar on her wedding day by Demophon, her fiance. She waited for years for him to return to her (why, we wonder?), but eventually she died of a broken heart.
The gods took pity and transformed her into an almond tree. When Demophon wised up and returned to find Phyllis turned into a flowerless tree, he embraced her, and the tree burst into bloom, proving that his love was greater than death — or that he loved almonds.
Almonds are an ancient food, domesticated as early as 3000 BC; archaeologists even found almonds in King Tut's tomb. Though they are in the rose genus, almonds most closely resemble peaches; in fact, in commercial production the almond tree rootstock frequently is grafted onto peach trees, giving the trunks a lumpy-bumpy appearance. Spanish missionaries brought almonds to California, which produces 100% of the US supply, and 80% of the world supply.
On the nutrition front, almonds are high in antioxidants and Vitamin E, and may help lower LDL (the bad cholesterol).
On the culinary front, almonds really shine. Sure, you can sprinkle them on salads, and it's fun to smash them with a nutcracker. For a lower-impact cooking experience, try ginger chicken with almonds, or explore some of the great dishes of the Spanish culinary repertoire: gazpacho made with almonds, either green (with grapes) or white (no grapes); or roast chicken with almonds and pine nuts stuffed under the skin; or the recipe below, inspired by a popular tapas dish.
After all, Spain brought us those almonds in the first place.
Cod with raisins, nuts and apples
When you decide to try a new recipe, don't let the fact that you're missing half of the ingredients stop you. Be creative — which is just what my friend Candy and I did last Thanksgiving, when we added this dish to our holiday tapas menu. (The best part of this story is that we didn't have raisins, so we picked a handful out of a box of Raisin Bran cereal!) Our cooking group made this twist on a Penelope Casas recipe for salt cod tapas, and they loved it. Serves 6 as an appetizer, or 3 as a main dish with some saffron rice and steamed green vegetable. Can be doubled.
2 Tbsp golden raisins
1-1/4 lb fresh cod fillet
Flour for dusting
6 Tbsp olive oil
2 1/4-inch thick slices of crusty loaf bread
6 Tbsp finely chopped onion
2 small tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
2 Tbsp pine nuts
1 cup chicken broth (low-sodium canned or homemade)
Fresh ground white pepper
8 blanched almonds, lightly toasted, or additional pine nuts
1/2 large tart apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Salt, to taste
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
Soak the raisins in warm water to cover for up to 2 hours.
Dry the cod on paper towels and cut into large chunks. Dust with flour. Heat 4 Tbsp of oil in a shallow casserole. Fry the bread on both sides until it is golden. Remove bread to a food processor or blender. Fry the cod in the same oil quickly, about 1 minute per side (add more oil if necessary). Remove to a warm dish. Wipe out the pan, but do not wash it.
Heat the remaining oil and sauté onion until it is wilted. Add tomato and cook for 3 minutes. Drain the raisins and stir them in, along with the pine nuts, broth, and white pepper. Cover and cook for 10 minutes.
WHILE THE SAUCE IS COOKING, in the food processor grind the bread with the almonds. With the motor running, add a few Tbsp of sauce from the casserole and process until the mixture is as smooth as possible. Add bread mixture to the casserole and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Add the cod, apple and garlic, and cook 10 minutes more, adding a little water or chicken broth if the sauce thickens too much. Taste for salt. Serve hot or at room temperature.
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