Walnuts look like brains and I read of an old Chinese belief that if you eat them, you may get smarter! Whether or not you subscribe to that idea, you must try these walnuts. They are so cleverly done – soaked to remove their tannins (the stuff that makes you pucker) and then oven roasted to slowly cook them. The nuts can sit for days until an hour or so before you’re ready to serve.
The final cooking in a skillet coats the nuts with a delicate touch of salt and sugar. While it’s dead simple, remember to watch the skillet temp or the nuts can burn. The refined flavor remains intact, delicious with drinks or even cheese for a cross-cultural approach.
I made these Chinese walnuts for a Lunar New Year dinner party and guests ate most of them up, along with a bunch of dumplings as appetizers. Then I made another batch just for myself to eat!
How are these like the fried candied walnuts that we usually think of as Chinese treats? They're better, more elegant. I found the recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp. There are no photos, just some illustrations in that book. Her charming, enthusiastic prose and detailed instructions encourage you to cook and experiment. If you have room on your shelf for another Chinese cookbook, that’s a nice one for discoveries like this:
Salted Caramelized Walnuts
Makes 2 cups
- 8 ounces (225g) walnuts, mostly plump halves preferred
- 2 teaspoons canola oil
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- Put the walnuts in a bowl, then cover with just-boiled water. Let sit to soak for 30 minutes. Drain, pat with paper towel to remove excess moisture.
- Preheat the oven to 300F with a rack in the middle position. Line a baking sheet with 2 or 3 sheets of paper towel. Arrange the walnuts on top in a single layer. Bake for 30 minutes to gently dry and roast. Cool and store in an airtight container for up to several days.
- About 1 hour before serving, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the walnuts and heat to warm, stirring and/or shaking the pan frequently. When the nuts are shiny and little oil is left in the skillet, sprinkle in the salt. Continue stirring and shaking to heat but not burn the nuts. If you fear burning, lower the heat.
- When the salt is no longer visible, add the sugar in 3 or 4 batches, shaking and stirring in between each and waiting till the sugar has melted and coated the nuts. Eventually, you’ll see a bit of smoke as the sugar caramelizes. Be more vigilant and keep stirring and shaking. When all the sugar has melted and there are little brownish-red bubbles in the skillet, turn off the heat. Total cooking time is about 5 minutes.
- Dump the walnuts onto a piece of parchment or a clean baking sheet. Cool to warm or room temperature. Break apart any nuts that stuck together. Eat. These are best within an hour or so of being roasted. If you have leftovers, store in an airtight container or zip-top bag. Warm in the microwave oven or skillet over medium heat to refresh.