Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya: walnuts for the holidays!
Persian walnuts in my Oregon garden © linda dalal sawaya 2015
An ancient tree from Persia, the Persian walnut is one of the oldest food trees in the world. Its uses through the ages include medicinal, culinary, and as a brown dye. It thrives in a Mediterranean climate and is favored in our cuisine in sauces, salads, desserts, and even with entrées, lending its nutritious nuts easily to sweet or savory dishes.
Eighty feet tall stands the gorgeous walnut tree in my Oregon garden, which we’ve enjoyed the bounty of for many years: harvesting the nuts in the fall and drying them for use all year long. In recent years with extensive development in my Portland environs, there’s been a loss of habitat for the wildlife, meaning that the starving squirrels are eating the walnuts in August well before they’ve reached their mature size and ripeness, leaving basically none for our family. This is the time of year when the harvest typically happens in the Pacific Northwest.
Last year, instead of helplessly anticipating the loss of harvest, in early summer I began to make an Italian liqueur called nocino, made from the young walnuts in their husks. On June 24, in Italy and in Portland, the walnuts are young and tender enough to be cut through with a knife. Walnut husks are deep brown and make a potent dye, so take care to wear gloves when handling this stone fruit. Historically walnut dye was used for hair, as an ink, and to dye wool into a beautiful brown color. The nocino takes months to mature, just in time for holiday decanting and gifting.
In June beginning to make nocino Italian walnut liqueur © linda dalal sawaya 2015
What we know as English walnut trees originated in Iran (Persia) used to be called Persian walnuts, and are well loved in their cuisine. A traditional Mediterranean way to preserve green walnuts is a rather elaborate process involving a sugar syrup. Another is to pickle them in a salt brine first and end with a spiced vinegar to preserve them. For me, the idea of making nocino has the most appeal and my friends love the results as Christmas house gifts! And the squirrels didn’t seem to notice, either.
In my family’s Lebanese village of Douma, walnut trees are abundant and oh, so tasty.
Walnut tree at Lebanese monastery near Douma © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Cold winter nights by the fire accompanied by a bowl of ‘amah warms the spirt and the soul. ‘Amah means wheat in Arabic, but traditional American hot cereals do not compare with this brothy blend, perfumed with aniseeds (yensoon), that can be a nutritious evening dessert, with the leftovers easily heated for a hearty breakfast. The porridge is sweetened with honey or sugar and walnuts and raisins are added by each person to their taste. Our Melkite church in Los Angeles served it already sweetened in paper cups with walnuts at Easter and at memorial Masses—a tradition going back to ancient Egyptian mourning rites. Symbolizing the resurrection of the dead as well as spring renewal and growth, it is also served to celebrate births, New Year’s Day, and the fall feast of St. Barbara, which coincides with Halloween and All Souls’ Day.
‘amah sweet wheat berry porridge with walnuts and raisins © linda dalal sawaya 2015
In a Middle Eastern savory dish called makdous, tiny eggplants are boiled, then rinsed and salted to begin a pickling process. They are then stuffed with walnuts and ground red peppers. Not something my mother or grandmother made, and I have yet to taste or cook this, but friends rave about it, so some day soon! Inshallah! The Italians use walnuts in many ways including pasta cream sauces, ice cream, breads, pastries, and of course, nocino. Mhammara is a divine red pepper and walnut dip that makes a fabulous holiday appetizer.
Mhammara spicy Lebanese red pepper and walnut dip © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Lebanese and Middle Eastern pastries famous for their use of walnuts are mamouls and many forms of baklawa. Mamouls are a favorite Easter tradition stuffed with walnuts, sugar, and orange blossom water, as is baklawa, which mama made as a Christmas treat. She would make huge trays of this Middle Eastern pastry to share with family and friends. Our version of this is not made heavy with honey, but a very light simple syrup making them so scrumptious, you just can’t eat one.
Chopped walnuts for mamoul or baklawa, left; mahlab for mamoul pastry dough © linda dalal sawaya 2015
My mother Alice making mamouls photos from Alice’s Kitchen © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Making mamouls © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Mamouls dusted with powdered sugar © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Mamouls individually gift wrapped by Um Ghassan in Tripoli, Lebanon © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Since we are in the holiday season, take the time with friends and family to bake some Lebanese pastries with walnuts and lots of love, as my beloved mother, Alice, said: If you make it with love, it will be delicious!
Making baklawa in a roll with walnut filling © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Making baklawa tray with walnut filling © linda dalal sawaya 2015
Either way you make baklawa, it is an amazing confection that celebrates your guests at this time of year.
Sahtein! Happy holidays, and happy cooking!