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Volume III
December 23, 2011

Weekly Home / Cook'n & Eat'n

Vegetarian Life: Let's Go NUTS!

By Alice Osborne

One of the best, handiest, and tastiest sources of protein for vegetarians are nuts. And besides being a good source of protein, they are heart-healthy! Nuts contain at least some of these heart-healthy substances:

•  Unsaturated fats. It's not entirely clear why, but it's thought that the "good" fats in nuts - both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats - lower bad cholesterol levels.

•  Omega-3 fatty acids. Many nuts are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are a healthy form of fatty acids that seem to help your heart by, among other things, preventing dangerous heart rhythms that can lead to heart attacks. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in many kinds of fish, but nuts are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

•  Fiber. All nuts contain fiber, which helps lower your cholesterol. Fiber also makes you feel full, so you eat less. Fiber is also thought to play a role in preventing diabetes.

•  Vitamin E. Vitamin E may help stop the development of plaques in your arteries, which can narrow them. Plaque development in your arteries can lead to chest pain, coronary artery disease or a heart attack.

•  Plant sterols. Some nuts contain plant sterols, a substance that can help lower your cholesterol. Plant sterols are often added to products like margarine and orange juice for additional health benefits, but sterols occur naturally in nuts.

•  L-arginine. Nuts are also a source of l-arginine, which is a substance that may help improve the health of your artery walls by making them more flexible and less prone to blood clots that can block blood flow.

Of all the nut varieties, almonds are considered the King of Nuts and next to chestnuts, they have the fewest calories. But no matter, nuts, all nuts are just good for us - if we eat them in moderation. One thing you want to be sure to do is soak them in a bowl of water overnight (except cashews - only soak them for 4 hrs). Soaking removes the phytates - chemicals that inhibit absorption in the gut.

There's no good point eating healthy (and often, expensive) nuts if the body can't access the nutrients. Drain the nuts well after soaking and either freeze them or dehydrate them at 115 degrees for 24 hours. Then you have the healthiest snack food around!

Now for some specific nutty tips:

Walnuts: For a flavorful (and nutritious) substitute for flour in breads, cakes, and cookies, use 1/3 cup finely ground nuts for 1/3 cup of the flour. Toasting walnuts before using intensifies their flavor, also.

Pecans: One of the most popular nuts, they're full more fat than any other nut. Pecans in the shell, favorites at holiday time, can be cracked more easily if they are covered with water, then boiled and cooled before cracking. Who knew?

Pistachios: Another crowd pleaser. They should be slightly open to indicate a mature nut and to help in retrieving the nutmeat. This little nut is a great source of calcium, by the way.

Almonds: Raw, blanched almonds are a favorite addition to a lot of foods. I love adding them to stir fry, tuna casseroles, and most of my rice dishes. Some recipes call for blanched almonds, which isn't hard to do: Cover them with boiling water and set aside for 3 minutes. Strain off the water, then slip off the skins by squeezing them between your fingers and thumb. I always have ground almond butter in my refrigerator. I use it for dipping celery sticks - one very healthy snack.

Chestnuts: Nutritionally, they are almost like a grain - all the better for using in stuffings, mashing into puree or roasting over an open fire (I feel a song coming on). To shell chestnuts, cut an X on the round side with a sharp knife; place in a shallow baking pan and add 1/4 cup of water. Bake for 10 minutes or until shells open.

And how about Coconut: Fresh coconuts, available year round, can be stored whole for up to 6 months. One medium coconut yields about 3 to 4 cups grated meat for toasting as a garnish or sweetening for baking.

And speaking of storing - nuts can go rancid because of their oil content. So to avoid this, store them in airtight containers in the freezer. They'll keep this way for a few months. But I can't say for sure, because we use ours up so quickly.

In closing, let's just not forget the nuts when we're planning our weekly menus. They're versatile, healthy, and handy. When I'm hungry and on the run, I grab a baggie of raw nuts and raisins and I'm set. There are just a lot of reasons to go nuts!

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