St. Louis foodies Barbara Bryant and Betsy Fentress have been at it again, blending food history and healthful facts with luscious recipes and gracious hospitality. Their new book -- Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture (2014 Gibbs Smith) -- is an ode to one of nature’s finest treats.
Did you know, for example, that almonds are a “superfood” packed with protein, Vitamin E and magnesium?
Or, that the teen-aged Leonardo da Vinci sculpted figures of marzipan, a paste of almonds and sugar?
And just look at what almonds did for Hershey bars.
“The marriage of almond and chocolate -- does it get any better?’’ says Bryant, enthusiastically. “But then when you think about almonds with green beans, and how wonderful they are. I put almonds in my yogurt in the morning. I love almonds. You just can’t go wrong with them.”
The authors’ comfy office in Clayton might not seem a likely home for a book that celebrates an agricultural crop grown in California. (The state produces about 80 percent of the world’s almonds.) But St. Louis isn’t the wine capital, either, Bryant noted with a smile – a reference to the previous book produced by the duo. The Bryant Family Vineyard Cookbook (2009, Andrews McMeel Publishing) celebrated the Napa Valley vineyard founded by her former husband Don Bryant, chairman emeritus of the Bryant Group, an executive benefits firm in St. Louis.
Bryant, who had the idea to write about almonds, took Fentress on a tour of California orchards and production facilities. (Did you know that Franciscan friars from Spain brought almond trees to California in the mid-1700s? Or, that honey bees are trucked to California in mid-February to pollinate the trees?)
“By the end of the day I turned to her and said, ‘We have to do this,’ ’’ Fentress said. “I became nuts about almonds.’’
They also liked the idea of devoting a book to a single food that has only recently become heralded for its nutritional value.
In the preface of the book, Bryant describes her childhood memories of buying almond confections at St. Louis sweet shops.
“I literally never travel without almonds,’’ Bryant said. “I keep them in my car. I keep them in my purse.’’
Fentress said they heard positive responses during their two-year project to produce the book: “People would say, ‘What are you working on?’ We'd say, 'We’re working on a book about almonds.' ‘You mean the nut?’ We’d say, ‘Yes, the nut,’ and they’d say, ‘We LOVE almonds.’’
Bryant said the book also celebrates the importance of hospitality -- of gathering around a table to share food and conversation.
“There ’s something profoundly different between sharing food and not sharing food when you’re having a conversation, whether it’s a whole meal, a fancy dinner party, or a cup of coffee,’’ she said.
Tucked between the recipes and gorgeous photographs by Robert Holmes are brief asides contributed by well-known foodies and chefs. Gerard Craft, of St. Louis’ Niche and Michael Anthony of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, write about the versatility of almonds in their menus.
Recipes range from simple snacks to main dishes and desserts: Burnt Sugar Almonds, Almond-And-Lemon-Crusted Salmon, Chocolate-Amaretto Torte. The recipes were developed by Lynda Balslev who is based in the San Francisco Bay area and is a regular contributor to NPR’s Kitchen Window. She also writes the blog TasteFood.
Bryant and Fentress will sign Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture at a local authors’ night, 6:30-8 p.m., Tues., April 22, Barnes and Noble at Ladue Crossing (intersection of Highway 170 and Ladue Road). They also have a website and a Facebook page.
Here is a sampling of recipes:
Winter Kale and Quinoa Salad with Carrots and Raisins
1 large bunch green curly kale, tough veins removed and leaves coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
1½ cups thinly sliced red cabbage
½ cup cooked quinoa
¼ cup (1 ounce) sliced almonds
¼ cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Place the kale in a large serving bowl. Add the lemon juice, oil and salt. Massage the kale until it begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Set aside.
To make the vinaigrette: Whisk the vinegar, shallots, black pepper and salt together in a small bowl. Slowly add the olive oil in a steady stream, whisking constantly to emulsify. Set aside.
Add the carrot, cabbage, quinoa, almonds and raisins to the kale. Toss with half of the dressing, then add the remaining dressing to taste.
(Four to six servings.)
Green Beans with Almonds
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup (1 ounce) slivered almonds
1 pound green beans, trimmed
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the almonds. Cook, stirring, until the almonds begin to turn golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, quickly transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel.
Add the beans to the skillet. Saute until the turn bright green, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and salt. Partially cover the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until the beans are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes longer. Transfer to a warmed serving bowl. Sprinkle with the reserved almonds. Serve warm.