I remember sitting down to a country meal in Provence many years ago. It began with little appetizers – freshly cured olives, tapenade, rosemary spiked aioli, then segued into a first course of a rich, fish soup. Everything was delicious, but what stole my palate was the main course, gorgeous braised goat with a thick, velvety sauce. I could see whole almonds in the sauce, but I couldn’t figure out what made it so smooth. The secret, I discovered later, was ground almonds. They’d been stirred into the braising liquid – a simple mixture of water and herbs – and by the time it came to a simmer, they had turned it thick and rich.
In Turkey, I swooned over grilled lamb with a smooth, rich pomegranate sauce thickened with minced walnuts, and in the southern U.S. I sampled dishes thickened with ground peanuts.
Who knew that ground nuts act as a delicious thickener? It took traveling to countries where nuts are staples to find out. Now that I know, I use them as thickeners all the time – they add intriguing flavors to soups and sauces, along with a lush, buttery quality that is so satisfying. They’re light on the palate, too.
I always love finding light and healthful ways to make food luscious, and using ground nuts as thickeners is one of my favorite discoveries. I keep a variety of ground nuts on hand, so that at a moment’s notice I can stir some into a sauce, a soup, a stew. I also have a selection of nut butters on hand – my staples are peanut, almond, and cashew butter – which are perfect thickeners as well. If you’re braising chicken, for instance, stir in two to three tablespoons of ground almonds into the sauce as the cooking time comes to a close. You’ll be thrilled with the result. If you’ve got a vegetable soup that needs a little punch and texture, mix some of it with a few tablespoons of peanut butter, then stir that mixture back into the soup. The next time you pan-fry a steak, try sautéing some onion, garlic, and red bell pepper in the pan juices after cooking the steak, add a drizzle of water and some peanut butter and Voila! You’ve got a gorgeous sauce.
Nut thickeners have a big advantage over the traditional butter and flour, too, because they add a subtle flavor dimension that never detracts or masks but rather enhances.
Nuts in the Kitchen offers many recipes for nuts as thickener, which you’ll discover as you peruse its pages. Until then, experiment, follow the above suggestions, have some fun.