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The Secret To These Sauces Is Nuts

I grew up thinking of nuts as junk food: full of fat and calories, a guilty treat for holidays and special occasions. I remember bowls of salty cocktail mix, nut-covered cheese logs, sweet buttery honey-roasted peanuts and cashews, or Jordan almonds in their strangely addictive sugary coating. They were in the same category as potato chips and candy: irresistible, but not good for you at all.

In the late '70s I became a vegetarian, and the hearty, wholesome, wonderful early vegetarian cookbooks advised me to think about the kind of protein that I consumed, and suggested that certain proteins complemented each other: rice and beans, whole wheat and nuts. So nuts were OK again, and the vegetarian cuisine of the time was crammed with virtuously stodgy nut roasts.

Nut sauces are a perfect opportunity for experimentation and improvisation. You can work with any combination of nuts, herbs and spices that you like, and add some vegetables or cheese, garlic or shallots.

Lately nuts have been in the news again, and it's all good news. It's enough to make somebody like me, who is nuts about nuts, feel quite smug and self-congratulatory. Sure, nuts have a high fat content, but it's good fat. Yes, they're high in calories, but it's the magical kind of calories, which curb your appetite and make you healthier but not any heavier. Nuts help to fight diabetes and heart disease! They help you to live longer! They do your homework and find you a job! And they're a big part of the Mediterranean diet, which we all know makes you smarter, healthier, happier and sexier.

Well, I was very happy to hear it, because I eat nuts every day. I buy them in bulk: cashews and peanuts for my boys to snack on; almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans to bake with; and for a splurge, pistachio kernels and pine nuts. I toss them into salads, I bake them into pies and cakes, sweet and savory. I love to experiment with frangipanes — not just sweet almond frangipane, but walnut and pistachio and hazelnut. I use nuts in savory dishes as well as sweet.

I've made soups with almonds and walnuts; I have a version of Jane Austen's white soup that's made creamy with ground almonds, just as the original probably was. I add nuts to curries and cookies and croquettes and my own vegetarian version of pâté en croute.

And I use them in sauces. Nut sauces and dips can be found in most of the world's cuisines: Genovese pesto, Spanish romesco, Middle Eastern muhammara, African ground nut sauce, Indian cashew curry, Latin American moles.

I like to take these as a starting point and invent new recipes of my own. Nut sauces are a perfect opportunity for experimentation and improvisation. You can work with any combination of nuts, herbs and spices that you like, and add some vegetables or cheese, garlic or shallots. One aspect of nut sauces that particularly appeals to me is their tendency to be lovely and smooth and creamy, despite being vegan.

My husband worked in a supermarket deli as a teenager, and the experience has left him permanently averse to mayonnaise. But I love a nice aioli with asparagus or patatas bravas. So I developed a version with almonds, capers, Dijon mustard, lemon juice and olive oil. It's delicious, and even my husband will eat it with pleasure. I've made variations with different nuts and flavorings — pistachio tarragon aioli, and pine nut and Meyer lemon aioli.

Nut sauces are perfect with grilled or roasted vegetables, as a dip for chips or fresh vegetables, on crostini, to accompany croquettes or savory pies, or tossed with pasta or cooked greens. I'm vegetarian, but I imagine that many of these sauces would be perfect with fish or chicken as well.

So go nuts. Nut sauces are easy and fun to make, they're quick and adaptable, and they're a wonderful way to get the servings of nuts that can help you stay strong and healthy.

Pine Nut And Meyer Lemon Aioli

This works just as well with regular lemons, but Meyer lemons make it seem more special. Of course, a true aioli would have garlic in it; I like to add roasted garlic when I process the nuts. Serve this with roasted potatoes, beets or winter squash; with steamed asparagus; with marinated, breaded eggplant; on salads; or drizzled over warm grains and beans.

Makes about 1 cup

1/3 cup pine nuts

Zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon

2 or 3 fresh sage leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon maple syrup or honey

1 teaspoon capers

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

Combine everything but the olive oil in a food processor and process until fairly smooth. While the machine is running, add the olive oil in a smooth drizzle. Process until smooth and creamy. Add a few tablespoons of water so it's as thin and smooth as you like it. Mine was the consistency of heavy cream.

Pistachio And Tarragon Aioli

A pretty green sauce, perfect with asparagus or tossed with arugula. Again, I like to add roasted garlic when I process the nuts, but it's not necessary.

/ Claire Adas for NPR
Claire Adas for NPR

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1/3 cup pistachio kernels, roasted or toasted

1/3 cup sliced almonds

2 teaspoons capers

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon fresh tarragon

Juice of half a lemon (or to taste)

1/2 cup warm water

1/4 cup olive oil

In a food processor or blender combine the nuts, capers, salt, pepper and tarragon. Process until coarse and crumbly.

Add the lemon juice and water and process until as smooth as possible. With the processor or blender running, add the olive oil slowly in a thin stream, and continue to process until the mixture is completely smooth.

Taste for salt, pepper and lemon.

Pecan And Red Pepper Sauce

Smoky and a little spicy, this sauce is nice with tacos or enchiladas, or even as a dip for corn chips.

/ Claire Adas for NPR
Claire Adas for NPR

Makes about 2 cups

1/2 cup roasted red peppers

1/2 cup pecans

1/2 cup vegetable broth (or water)

1/4 teaspoon (or to taste) chipotle purée (I buy a small can of chipotle peppers packed in adobe sauce, purée it and keep it in the refrigerator)

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon rosemary

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper

You can roast peppers on your burners or broil them in the oven until their skins are blackened, and then put them in a bowl with a plate on top. After 5 or 10 minutes, peel off most of their skin, and trim the stem and seeds away. One pepper is about half a cup. In the winter I sometimes use roasted red peppers in a jar, packed in brine.

Combine everything in a processor or blender, and process until fairly smooth. You can serve this warmed in a saucepan or at room temperature.

Spicy Spinach And Cashew Sauce

You can make this quite thin as a sauce for rice or pasta, or serve it thick to accompany roasted or grilled vegetables, or as a dip for pakoras or kofta (little dumplings or croquettes made with vegetables, spices and chickpea flour or grains).

/ Claire Adas for NPR
Claire Adas for NPR

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

About 5 ounces spinach (about 2 cups)

1 teaspoon dried basil, or a small handful of fresh basil leaves

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon coriander

Pinch of nutmeg

Red pepper flakes, to taste

Pinch of ground ginger

1/2 cup roasted cashews

Squeeze of lime

Plenty of salt and pepper

Warm the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the shallot. Cook for a minute or two, add the garlic, cook for under a minute until it starts to brown. Add the spinach, a few tablespoons of water and herbs and spices. Cook until the spinach is wilted and the pan is quite dry.

Meanwhile, put the cashews in a blender or food processor. Add about 1/2 cup water, and blend until you have a thick paste.

Add the spinach mixture to the blender, and blend it all together. Add a splash of water to the empty pan, and stir it around so you have all the nice spicy bits. Pour this water into the blender. Blend until you have a nice smooth sauce. Return it to the pan and heat to warm through, if you like, or serve at room temperature. You can leave this thick like a pesto, or add water to make it a thinner sauce. Season with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lime.

Cilantro, Pistachio, Almond And Castelvetrano Sauce

This sauce has a nice balance of flavors. I like it with corn chips or tacos, roasted potatoes, rice and beans or grilled vegetables. Castelvetrano olives are pretty, bright-green olives, juicy and mild with a vegetal flavor. You can substitute other green olives, but the flavor and color won't be quite as bright.

/ Claire Adas for NPR
Claire Adas for NPR

Makes about 2 cups

1/3 cup sliced almonds

1/3 cup pistachios, roasted or lightly toasted

1/2 cup castelvetrano olives

1 clove garlic, roasted or toasted

1 jalapeno (or more to taste)

1 cup cilantro leaves, cleaned and picked from the stem

Juice of half a lemon

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup water

Salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper

In a food processor or blender, combine the nuts, olives, garlic and jalapeno, and process until chopped quite fine. Add the cilantro and process until chopped and combined. Add the lemon juice and honey and process again. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil and process until fairly smooth. Add enough water to make it just as thin as you like it, and process until completely smooth. I left mine quite thick, like whipped cream, but you can make it as thin as you like it. Season well with salt and pepper.

Walnut, French Lentil And Herb 'Gravy'

A creamy, cream-free sauce full of umami flavor. I make it to go with double-crusted savory pies for holidays, but it would also be nice with portobello "steaks," or tossed with pasta and sautéed chard. If you replace the butter with olive oil, this would be vegan.

/ Claire Adas for NPR
Claire Adas for NPR

Makes about 3 1/2 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 bay leaves

1/3 cup French lentils

3 cups water

2 tablespoons butter

1 shallot, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried sage or 3 or 4 fresh sage leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

Splash of white wine

Pinch nutmeg

Dash tamari (a sauce made with fermented soybeans, similar to soy sauce, but with a smoother, less-salty flavor; you can substitute soy sauce)

Dash balsamic vinegar

Salt and plenty of pepper

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium high heat, warm the olive oil and the bay leaves. Add the lentils, stir and cook until they sizzle, then add 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about half an hour, until the lentils are quite tender. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When it starts to get foamy and golden, add the shallot, garlic and herbs. Let them cook for a minute or two until they start to brown. Add the flour and whisk it in until it's thoroughly mixed. Let it cook for a couple of minutes.

Add the walnuts and keep stirring until everything is coated. Add the white wine and cook for a few minutes until it's thick and syrupy. Add the nutmeg, tamari and the lentils in their broth, stirring everything together so that there are absolutely no lumps.

Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook for about half an hour. Stir frequently, but not constantly. Add water as the sauce thickens. You want it to be the consistency of heavy cream at the end.

Add a dash of balsamic and salt, and blend until smooth and creamy. Taste for salt and add plenty of pepper.

Savory Almond And Vanilla Sauce

During a bout of insomnia, I found myself wondering why we rarely encounter vanilla in a savory setting. This sauce was inspired by the timeless combination of French fries and a vanilla milkshake. We eat it with oven-roasted fries, but it's also good with roasted winter squash or beets.

/ Claire Adas for NPR
Claire Adas for NPR

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 slice of baguette, 1 1/2 to 2 inches

1 cup blanched sliced almonds

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup water

Lots of freshly ground pepper

Cut the crusts off of the slice of bread, and cover it with water.

Put the almonds in a blender with the moist bread, the vanilla, balsamic, olive oil, salt and water. Blend until smooth.

You will probably need to add more water, but start with half a cup and work your way up. You want a consistency like very thick cream. Add as much pepper as you like and blend once more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claire Adas