[This is the sixth post in a long series. You may wish to start at the beginning. Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week. Just that I will eventually finish it, someday. Unless I get hit by a bus.]
Obviously produce is the most important thing you need to shop for to make a great salad, but it’s not the only thing. There are several other categories of groceries to stock up on. Today we’re going to talk about nuts and seeds and dried fruit. In my local Trader Joe’s,1 all these items are on the same aisle, so it feels natural to me to put them together. Your store my be laid out differently, of course. But look at it this way: these also constitute everything you need to make trail mix. So there’s another common thread.
NutsThere are some sort of nuts in nearly every salad I make: four out of the six salads I want to show you how to make have nuts in them. Besides, you can’t make trail mix without nuts, and trail mix is an excellent snack to try to replace your potato chip and cookie cravings with. So we’re going to need some nuts.
In general, I prefer dry-roasted nuts to raw. I just think there’s more depth of flavor in a dry-roasted nut. So, where possible, I get the roasted nuts. In my grocery store, that means the only raw nuts I buy are walnuts, because I can’t find them roasted. And I’m not going to do it myself. I’d happily pay extra for dry-roasted walnuts if I could find them, but actually going to the trouble of roasting them myself is way too much effort. Remember: we want to keep things simple so that we’ll be more likely to eat salad.
Next comes the question of salt. Most of the nuts at my store come in 3 varieties of saltiness: “full salt,” “half salt,” and no salt. Half salt just means half the salt of the full salt variety, which is however much salt they felt like putting on, so on the one hand it means nothing, but I still prefer that over the full salt for most types of nuts. I rarely buy the completely unsalted unless I don’t have a choice (with one exception).
When it comes to flavorings other than salt, though, I just say no. I don’t want wasabi almonds, or candied pecans, or what-have-you. Partialy because a lot of times those types of things contain ingredients that defeat my nutritional goals (e.g. corn starch, added sugar, MSG, etc). But also because I just want to taste the nuts. They’re yummy. I don’t think they need a lot of dressing up.2
Finally, there’s the organic question again. With nuts, I’m not as adamant about the organic thing. I just don’t find as much taste differential with nuts as I do with produce. With fresh fruit and vegetables, I can really tell the difference between organic and non-organic. With nuts, I can’t. It’s just that simple. Also, organic nuts are harder to come by, and often, unlike with the produce, significantly more expensive than the non-organic varieties. But do what you feel is right for you.
Now let’s talk about the specific nuts we’re going to need.
Pistachios. I have come to love pistachios more than all other nuts combined. I can just eat them by the handful, and I never get tired of them. Pistachios are the only type of nut that I actually prefer unsalted (but still dry-roasted, of course). We’ll see pistachios in two of our salad recipes.
Cashews. A lot of people really love cashews. I’m a bit cooler on them. I like them well enough, but I get tired of them easily, and too many will overwhelm a taste profile, in my view. I buy dry-roasted, “half salt.” I stopped buying whole cashews, though, because they’re more expensive, for some reason. Pieces are just fine for salad purposes.
Pecans. I never liked pecans as a kid. Now I adore them. Almost as much as pistachios. I buy dry-roasted, “full salt” (because I can’t get “half salt”), “halves and pieces.”
Walnuts. Man, I wish I could find dry-roasted walnuts. I think I would really like them a lot better than raw walnuts. Still, raw walnuts are pretty good, and indispensible for one of our salads. I buy raw, unsalted (again, no choice), pieces. In the case of walnuts, I might even be willing to pay more for pieces, because whole walnuts are too damn big. But generally pieces is all I see anyway.
Almonds. Almonds are completely optional: we’re not actually going to need almonds for any of our salads. But almonds are super-tasty, and, if you’re also going to try making some trail mix, you’ll want almonds for sure. I buy dry-roasted, “half salt.”
SeedsSome folks like sesame seeds or sunflower seeds in their salads. I’m not going to recommend those though. What you will need in this category are pepitas, also known as dry-roasted pumpkin seeds, shelled and salted. A bag will last you roughly forever, but that’s okay because they don’t appear to go bad ... at least not bad enough to need to throw out. If you keep them around too long, they get a little “flat,” and you probably won’t want to eat them out-of-hand (assuming you enjoyed eating them out-of-hand in the first place, which I personally don’t). But for purposes of our dressing, that won’t impact the taste significantly.
Dried FruitAgain, dried fruit is not only great for salads, but also awesome for trail mix purposes. To my way of thinking, trail mix is all about the perfect mix of salty and sweet, and if you’re trying to avoid anything with added sugar, you pretty much have to get your sweet from fruit. Also, dried fruit (like nuts) lasts quite a long time, so you can stock up and not have to worry about it for a while.
Plantain chips. A plantain is some sort of miracle fruit. When ripe, you can use them much like bananas, and, if you’ve ever had plantains at a restaurant serving Caribbean fare (i.e. plátanos), they were most likely sweet and sticky and vaguely reminded you of bananas. Which is fine. But where the plantain really shines in my view is when they’re unripe, when you can treat them pretty much like potatoes. You can make tostones out of them, which are sort of like french fries in taste (although not in shape), you can mash them up like mashed potatoes, and, best of all, you can make chips out of them. A bag of fried plantain chips is just as good as a bag of potato chips, and (unfortunately) just as addicitive. I used to buy those, but I don’t any more.3 Now I buy the roasted plantain chips, which are not as good for eating out-of-hand ... but still pretty decent. You can dip them in guacamole, for instance, and there’s another excellent healthy snack for you. Or you can crush them up and sprinkle them on your salad to give it an extra layer of crunch, which is what we’re going to do with them. Trader Joe’s sells them in 6 ounce bags, and my family goes through them 2 to 4 a week.
Raisins. There’s no point in talking about dried fruit without talking about the king of dried fruit, the raisin. I actually like to buy organic here—unlike with the nuts, I think I can tell the difference taste-wise, and they’re just not that much more expensive. The particular kind I’m buying happens to be Thompson raisins, but I don’t know how significant that is in the long run.
Dried cranberries. Now here is the first place we’re going to “cheat” a little bit from my nutritional goals, because as far as I know it is physically impossible to find dried cranberries that don’t have added sugar. I’m willing to cheat a bit for this particular salad, though.4 Besides, who would want to eat unsweetened cranberries? Bleaugh. I buy organic, preferably sweetened with organic sugar.
Optional dried fruit. We won’t need any more types of dried fruit for the particular salads I’m going to show you, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop here. If you happen to be shopping at Trader Joe’s too, there are two other types that I heartily recommend: berry medley, and golden berry blend. You can use these for trail mix, as I do, or experiment with making your own types of salads. (Just remember that dried fruit can contain quite a chunk of sugar, so keep it light.) Berry medley is dried cherries, dried blueberries, and dried strawberries. This is my all-time favorite dried fruit for trail mixes, even though dried strawberries can sometimes be too big for eating out of hand (i.e. a handful of trail mix that includes one of the bigger dried strawberries by necessity doesn’t contain much else). Golden berry blend is golden raisins, dried cranberries (with no added sugar!), and, again, dried cherries and blueberries. Also good for trail mix.
On the other hand, if you’re just looking for dried fruit to eat out of hand, I’d recommend dried figs. Pair them with brie (in particular, Trader Joe’s brie bites). Yum.
StorageRemember to keep your nuts and seeds out of direct sunlight: sunlight breaks down their natural oils and makes them go “rancid.” Rancid nuts aren’t particularly bad for you;5 they just taste disgusting (very similar to stale potato chips or tortilla chips). So keep ’em in a cool dark place. Ditto on the dried fruit, which I keep in our “chocolate fridge.” We have a tiny little fridge that was designed to be something you’d take to your office, but it’s so wimpy that it can’t really keep things as cold as you’d want for a real refrigerator. But it’s perfect for chocolate, which needs to be kept cool but not too cold. So I just toss the dried fruit in there as well. But you can use any cool dark place; wherever you put your potatoes and/or onions is likely good. Just make sure they stay well sealed to keep them from soaking up unwanted flavors (e.g. onions)
Stored properly, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit will last an insanely long time. Not that that’s going to be an issue.6
Next time around, we’ll do even more shopping. Up next: meat and cheese.
1 Which is, you may recall, where I get nearly all my groceries.
2 And, if they do, I’d prefer to do the dressing myself.
3 Besides, I could only find them at Whole Foods, and who can afford that?
4 And, honestly, the dressing will have added sweetener too. So we were going to be cheating either way.
5 Unless you eat a whole lot of them. Of course, some sources will tell you that they’re bad for you even in small quantities. More conflicting nutritional information. Big surprise.
6 Well, except for the pepitas. I use ⅓ cup of pepitas perhaps every 2 weeks or so, and the smallest container I can find is a 1 pound bag. So those hang around for quite a while. But everything else never has much of a chance to go bad.