Friday, April 08, 2005

Green Almonds: Baby-Fresh

There’s nothing like a baby in the vicinity to bring people together and get them started talking. So much to be considered and so much to marvel about, contained within that fresh, new, soft-as-silk skin. Hardly bearing any resemblance to the grownup variety of human that has become, inevitably over time, a bit less interesting, babies are meant be cherished in all their freshly-created wonder.

Last week, as I eyed the produce counter at a local international grocery, I spotted the almond babies among the new arrivals. These fresh, young nuts with their soft, green skins seemed to hold a baby-like, magnetic attraction for the shoppers.

Accustomed as this ingredient sleuth is to the use of various nuts in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cookery, I just naturally assumed that it would be easy to find instructions for use of these unfamiliar little fledglings. Probably a matter of nothing more complicated than opening a few of my trusty cookbooks or, at worst, a quick browse of one of my friendly Internet search-engines.

So, undaunted as a fly trapped between the patio door and the screen, I buzzed along and scooped several handfuls of the little sweeties into a plastic bag and proceeded nonchalantly to the checkout stand. Fleetingly, it occurred to me that I could ask the checkout clerk for usage instructions. But, nothing succeeds as well at keeping me quiet as false confidence – and I sped away home, clueless!

All sleuths, ingredient or otherwise, live for the thrill of the chase – the undying certitude that, given a respectable amount of diligent effort, the mystery will be solved, the answer revealed. Some time later, surrounded by stacks of cookbooks, with fingers tired from tap-dancing over the computer keyboard as Internet resources had been investigated, this ingredient sleuth was a frustrated sleuth indeed.

The closest I had come to any mention of my now-mysterious food find was by a young American, living in Paris, in an Internet posting. She described her joy (much like mine!) at discovering lovely fresh almonds, still wearing their fuzzy green coats, at her local outdoor market last year. “Aha,” I crowed. “Here we are!” But, alas, that was where her story ended. Apparently, at that point, she simply rushed off to enjoy her fresh almonds, with no lingering word of method left behind!

What was I to do? No way was I going to risk letting those almond babies go unused, unloved, unappreciated. Like all babies, they deserved their fair share of attention and admiration. So, back to the international grocery I went, tail between sleuthing heels!

There’s nothing like a little humility to grease the skids of human interaction. As I approached the produce counter, a woman was confidently scooping fresh, green almonds into a sack – just as I had done. “Pardon me,” I said. “Do you know how to use these? I bought some yesterday but I really don’t know how to prepare them.”

She looked surprised but, in that friendly way that fellow grocery-shoppers have of helping each other, she smiled and replied with a little chuckle in her voice, “You just wash them off and eat them -- like this!” And, quicker than a bunny in a backyard garden, she picked up an almond, bit it in half, then showed me the remaining half, with its soft, white center. “If you like, you can dip them into a little salt,” she added, eyes twinkling. “I can’t resist them,” she sighed. “If only the season was longer.”

And so, I have been enjoying my baby almonds ever since, just as my friendly fellow shopper recommended! The refreshing taste is pungent and slightly sour; it reminds me of a raw string bean, with a snappy, citrus tartness. I thought that salt was a good addition, bringing out the subtle, smooth almond flavor that we all recognize, and cutting the citrus sharpness.

Naturally, once I knew how to eat them, finding internet sites that discussed them began magnitudes easier! There is a great description of fresh almonds, as well as almond history, at Waitrose is a British supermarket chain and mail order firm. It was careful, in the description, to distinguish between bitter almonds – the ones used to make almond extract and Amaretto liqueur – which contain poisonous prussic acid and should never be eaten unprocessed and sweet almonds – the ones with which we are all familiar as snacking and baking products.

The fresh, green almonds are of the sweet – and safe – variety. They are simply young, harvested before they mature, and have not yet gone through the process in which the green skin (which is actually the fruit) hardens, then cracks, revealing the nut (which is actually the kernel). Clearly, if one is ever going to eat the fruit portion of the almond tree's produce, it is going to have to be when it is young, soft and green.

The description continued, indicating that almonds were originally native to central Asia, from as long ago as 4000 B.C. As the trade routes to the Mediterranean were opened, the almonds hitched a ride – they liked the Mediterranean climate even better than their native one (not unlike many human visitors to that sun-washed area). Today, almonds are grown in climates similar to that of the Mediterranean, including California.

For fresh almonds, specifically, I found few recipes that use them. One, for green almond conserve, can be found on the Food Nouveau website at I will never detail a recipe here that I have not tried myself, but it is there on the website if you would like to check it out for yourselves. As to the scarcity of recipes, I guess that most of the world is satisfied with the un-recipe – fresh from the tree – version!

Although still a green-almond novice, I can understand how one would look forward to each season’s delivery of these bouncing almond babies – a refreshing taste explosion quite unlike any other. And so, I think, it is highly recommended to gather at our markets, discuss and appreciate them while we can. They won’t stay babies forever!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like to take these along to work for an afternoon snack because they are so refreshing and easy to carry. Sometimes I chop them up and use them as a garnish on creamy soups as a nice fresh contrast.