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Alimentary, My Dear

I'd Better Nut — Alternatives for Paddlers With Nut Allergies

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

February 19, 2013 In the Bags

I like nuts. That's not exactly a secret, though, is it? I've been extolling their virtues for a long time. They pack a lot of calories and other good things in a very small space. They travel well. And they taste good. All of which makes them ideal fare for paddlers. Well, for some paddlers, at any rate. But not every paddler can eat them. If you have a nut allergy, you know what I mean.

Peanuts aren't true nuts, of course. They're legumes — beans, if you prefer. But peanut allergies probably get the most space on food blogs and in the popular press. Which leaves folks who are allergic to "tree nuts" feeling a little left out. (Peanuts, aka groundnuts, grow in the soil.) And to be honest, I haven't done much to redress the balance. While I've said a few words about peanut allergies in past columns, I've entirely neglected the interests of paddlers who can't eat tree nuts. Now I'm going to begin putting that right.

Same Boat reader Jerry Strojny can take the credit for this. Here's what he had to say in a recent e‑mail:

I look forward to reading your articles every week. This week was about the venerable pistachio ["Pistachio Pastiche" – Editor]. As much as I appreciate the nutritional value of most nuts, I have to sit on my hands when they come out. I am one of the unlucky people to be allergic to nuts. All nuts. ... But back to what I was about to ask, since you seem to have some fantastic recipes and a great knowledge of what you like to use in them. Are there some suggestions you could provide for nut replacements? What are some good "nut substitutes" that keep the nutrition but don't have that part that makes me hold back?

Full disclosure here: My allergic reaction is pretty minor, mostly just an itchy throat. Really no more than an annoyance, never been much more than that. But I don't want to take the risk while on a kayak trip if my allergy decides that's the time I'll need to visit the emergency room. And apparently, if there are nuts in Christmas cookies, I'm not allergic to those. Funny how that works!

Boy, I feel like I just asked you for a unicorn. Well, if you have some thoughts, I would love to hear them.

I'm in Jerry's debt. His letter — which he graciously allowed me to reprint — gave me just the nudge I needed to come to grips with a topic I'd heretofore given short shrift. And while I can't produce a unicorn, I may be able to offer a little help to Jerry and other paddlers who need to steer clear of nuts. The key question for these backcountry wanderers, then, is this:

What, if Anything, Can Take the Place of Nuts?

First things first, though. I'm not a physician, an allergist, or a licensed dietician. I'm just a canoeist (and hillwalker and cyclist) who likes to eat. So treat my suggestions with appropriate caution. Before you head off downriver with a food bag full of something I mention in this or any other column, talk to the doc. Then follow her advice. It trumps mine every time. And be sure to observe Test Kitchen Rule Number 1: Always try out new dishes and new foods at home before you make them part of your paddling menu. Whether it's just a transient itch or life‑threatening anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction is a lot easier to deal with when you can dial 911 than when you're windbound on a lakeshore 50 miles from your car, with no cell phone coverage and night closing in.

OK. You're allergic to tree nuts. Or all nuts. What nut‑like foods can you eat? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Sesame seeds
  2. Poppy seeds
  3. Flax seeds
  4. Chia seeds
  5. Sunflower seeds
  6. Pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas)
  7. Soy nuts
  8. Dry‑roasted edamame
  9. Corn nuts
  10. Roasted chickpeas

A warning: Everything on this list won't work for everyone. Be guided by your previous experience and your doc's advice. (I won't keep repeating this mantra in every paragraph, but you should.) All the listed seeds and "nuts" are good foods, but some are better than others — for some things. Unless you're a chickadee, you probably won't be eating sesame seeds or poppy seeds out of hand, let alone flax seeds or chia seeds — though I've caught Farwell licking poppy seeds off a roll on more than one occasion. Still, there's no denying that small seeds are at their best when they're part of something bigger. The executive summary: Put seeds in cooked dishes, sprinkle them on cereals and salads, or incorporate them into homemade snack bars or breadstuffs.

On the other hand — aha! — sunflower and pumpkin seeds can be eaten straight, and so can corn nuts. All three are time‑tested backcountry snacks, and they can also be added to main dishes and baked goods. Soy nuts and edamame might not be as familiar, though. Of course, soy nuts aren't really nuts at all. They're soybeans that have been baked and roasted. Sometimes they're salted, and sometimes they're coated with spices. And they score well in the protein and fiber departments. Edamame beans are soybeans that haven't grown up — think of them as soy "veal," if that helps. Since the dry‑roasted edamame beans I see on the shelves are actually larger than the neighboring soy nuts, however, the veal analogy isn't particularly apt. (Edamame is traditionally prepared by steaming or boiling immature soybeans in the pod, but the HyperMarts that I frequent stock only the dry‑roasted beans.) Anyway, both soy nuts and edamame make excellent snacks, and both can pinch‑hit for tree nuts in recipes.

A further word about corn nuts: These are large kernels of corn that have been roasted or deep‑fried, and they're usually heavily salted. They're a good source of food energy, if a little light on protein, and they have a pleasant taste when eaten out of hand. But think twice before biting down if your teeth aren't in perfect shape. Most corn nuts aren't much easier to chew than pebbles picked up from the bottom of a stream.
 

As you can see, the list of possible alternatives to "real" nuts is pretty long. But where can you harvest this bounty? In almost any HyperMart or food co‑op, that's where. You can also order in bulk online. If you do much cooking, however — or if you live with someone who does — you probably won't need to go shopping. I found five candidates right on my Test Kitchen shelves, along with a bag of my custom bonk‑buster mix. It contains pumpkin seeds (they're the greenish bits in the photo) and soy nuts, as well as dried cranberries. Take a look:

Bags of Fun

Have I left anything out? Indeed I have. It's the last item on my list. And in keeping with a time‑honored tradition, observed by generations of hacks, I saved the best till last:

Roasted Chickpeas

Chickpeas are legumes, like peanuts, but the two aren't particularly close relatives. You won't be able to buy roasted chickpeas in every store — not even every HyperMart. But as we'll soon see, this doesn't matter. You'll find the raw ingredient in any supermarket worthy of the name. That's the important thing. A roasted chickpea (you may know it as a garbanzo or garbanzo bean or by any of a half‑dozen other names) is just … er … a chickpea that's been roasted — and probably salted and seasoned, as well. You're most likely to find them in your local food co‑op. If all the coffee in sight is labeled fair‑trade, and the battered boom‑box never stops playing reggae tracks, you may be in with a chance. No luck? No problem. You can always make your own. Here's how:
 


 

Roasted Chickpeas — The Master Recipe
Yield: One cup, more or less

Ingredients:

  • 1 can chickpeas (most hold around a pound)
  • Olive oil (extra‑virgin is best, but use what you have)
  • Coarse salt (kosher salt or sea salt)

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. While you're waiting for it to come up to temperature, empty the chickpeas into a sieve or colander and rinse them under the tap till the water runs clear (Step A in the photo panel below). Shake off the excess water. Next, place an absorbent cotton towel on your worktable or counter, then cover it with a layer of paper toweling. Now decant the rinsed chickpeas onto the paper towel (Step B) and place a second paper towel on top. Using your palms, gently roll the chickpeas between the paper towels (Step C). This dries them and dislodges any loose skins.

Chickpea Roast 1

After removing the loosened skins (Step D in the panel below), transfer the chickpeas to a bowl. Drizzle a little olive oil over them (Step E). Don't go overboard with the oil. You want to coat the chickpeas, not drown them! Now sprinkle with salt (Step F), being careful not to overdo this, too. You can always add more salt later.

Chickpea Roast 2

Mix the chickpeas to distribute the oil and salt (Step G in the next panel), then spread them out on a rimmed roasting pan (Step H). They need their space, so give each chickpea a little elbow room (Step I). When you're satisfied that everything is as it should be, slide the pan into the preheated oven and note the time.

Chickpea Roast 3

Keep your eye on the clock from here on out. Chickpeas will burn if left in the oven too long. But time isn't the only element in the equation. The size of the chickpeas and the type of baking pan — dark pans heat faster than shiny ones — will each influence how fast the roasting process goes. So check the chickpeas frequently. Some rough and ready guidelines: After 15 minutes, open the oven and give the pan a gentle jostle (Step J in the panel below). Repeat every five to 10 minutes. Test the chickpeas when they begin to turn golden brown or start to shrink and split, and retest at regular intervals thereafter. (Your test instruments are your teeth. Don't burn your mouth!) This is no time to leave the kitchen, by the way, so you might as well do something else while you're waiting. I started a big pot of chicken‑vegetable soup (Step K).

The chickpeas should be ready in 30 to 45 minutes. There's some latitude, however. If you'll be taking the chickpeas on a long trip, roast them till they're crispy through and through. On the other hand, if you'll be eating them in the next day or two, pull them from the oven just as soon as the outside is golden brown and the "meat" yields reluctantly to the enquiring tooth (Step L). Be warned: Crispy chickpeas are about as hard on teeth as corn nuts. If you've got a dodgy tooth or a troublesome filling, it's best to settle for al dente — or at least check the supplies in your dental first‑aid kit before you drive to the put‑in.

Chickpea Roast 4

Once the chickpeas are roasted to your liking, let them cool completely and then bag them up for the trail. Work fast. In my experience, they don't last long if they're left on the kitchen table!

 


 

By the way, one chickpea is pretty much like another. Don't think you have to pay a premium price for a name brand with a picture of an Italian peasant girl on the label. I used Great Value (the Walmart store brand) chickpeas for my initial trial. A can of Progresso chickpeas did the honors in the second. Both did the job, but the Great Value chickpeas had far fewer loose skins and a much better flavor. (Progresso's chickpeas were larger, though.) I left my first batch of chickpeas in the oven just a couple of minutes too long. Some of them charred. Farwell, who once split a tooth on a fried egg sandwich, would have nothing to do with them. I was more careful when I made the second batch, however, and they offered just token resistance when bitten. Farwell scarfed these down without a moment's hesitation.

This One's Just Right!

Both batches had a good flavor, though the stony, charred chickpeas (on the left in the photo below) had a slight edge here. (Sorry, Farwell.) Only you can decide if your teeth are up to the job, of course. My recommendation? If the nearest dentist is miles (and days) away, err on the side of caution.

Charred or Chewy?

What good is a roasted chickpea? They make great snacks, to be sure, but I also add them to rice pilaf, hot cereal, and prepackaged meals like Lipton Scampi Noodles and Sauce. Peas and broccoli are valuable additions to the Lipton Scampi, too, if you can find them in your food bag. And because chickpeas have a mild flavor, they lend themselves to a wide variety of seasonings. If you have an adventurous turn of mind, try flavoring roasted chickpeas with spices and herbs. You could even sweeten them by drizzling honey or maple syrup over them as they roast, but I'd suggest waiting till the last 10 minutes or so to avoid carbonizing the sweetener. Experiment and see what tickles your fancy. Even when things don't turn out quite as you planned, they seldom go so badly wrong that you won't enjoy eating your mistakes.

Scampi, Anyone?

Nuts make perfect paddling fare. But what if you're nuts about nuts and your body isn't? In other words, what do you do if you have a nut allergy? Well, you could shrug your shoulders and do without. Or you could look for alternatives. And with a little prompting from Jerry Strojny, that's just what I've done. I'm sure there are many things I've missed, however. So if you have something else to suggest, please let me know. Because we're all in the same boat, right?

 


 

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