Almonds Open Up a World of Small Plates
Brought to you by the Almond Board of California.
A natural fit for today’s global cooking, almonds offer chefs the taste, texture and versatility to create the standout small plates, snacks and bar bites consumers want today.
Not surprisingly, where almonds grow abundantly they are typically used creatively in small plates. Take California, the source of approximately 80 percent of the world’s supply, making almonds the state’s most valuable agricultural export. The Golden State is known for its unique style of fresh, seasonal and local cooking often served in the form of small, flavorful dishes. Another inspiration is Spain, where the savory little dishes known as tapas have long been a culinary art form.
“Almonds are a natural part of the cuisine of Spain as a snack, a small plate item and an ingredient that adds crunch to smooth, creamy foods,” says Chef John Csukor, the Almond Board of California’s ACE, or Almond Culinary Educator. Although they are inherently mild in character, they nevertheless stand up to assertive ingredients like olives, roasted peppers, smoked paprika, lamb and garlicky sausages that are traditional to Spanish cooking and often embraced by American chefs working on dishes featuring California almonds.
However, almonds can roam far beyond Western cultures. For example, they also create exciting flavor, texture and visual appeal when chefs interpret diverse Asian cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian in small plates, Csukor says.
Wherever they are used, almonds have a delicate yet distinct character that enhances, rather than overwhelms, other flavor profiles. Creative chefs appreciate the variety of functional forms they come in, including whole, chopped and slivered almonds as well as almond butter, almond milk and almond flour. The latter, made by grinding whole almonds into a powder, is a tasty and nutritious* alternative for bread crumbs in breaded items, Csukor says.
Another use for almonds is as a thickener for sauces, dressings and soups, replacing starches. For example, Csukor has experimented with a product called almond crème as a mayonnaise substitute. It is made from blanched almonds soaked in water and blended into a mild-tasting preparation that is thick and creamy like a cultured dairy product yet dairy-free and vegetarian.
Csukor also notes the versatility of almond butter, which is made from raw blanched almonds. Light in color and neutral in flavor, it stars in an Asian-inspired dipping sauce blended with soy and chilies. Another exemplary use is as the base of a salad dressing that coats young kale greens with its sweet nuance and balances the bitterness.
No less dramatic is the way almonds transform the texture of foods. Csukor offers the example of the Beef Barbacoa Taco, a small plate in which tender beef shreds are tucked into an almond-masa tortilla. The tortilla is made with equal parts of white corn and blanched almond flour and cooked in butter on a cast iron griddle. The almonds lend the tortillas an “uber crunchy” character and an alluring aroma of roasted nuts, Csukor says. Adding still more crunch and flavor is an almond-saffron mojo sauce made with almonds and almond oil.
Looking ahead, Csukor predicts that creative chefs will continue to find flavorful and wholesome uses for almonds. Using the analogy of an archery target, he expects to see more bull’s-eyes as they perfect their almond applications.
“We’ve gone far beyond simply toasting almond slivers and throwing them on a salad, which was hitting the outer ring of the target,” says Csukor.
Typical of the direction almonds are traveling today is a small plate like seared ahi tuna coated with crushed almonds.
“Imagine what the almonds do for the tuna,” says Csukor. “The tuna is seared on the outside and raw on the inside, the almonds on the outside stay crunchy forever and you eat it with a wonderful ponzu. That is spot-on in the center of the bull’s-eye—having the almonds really be an integral part of the experience.”