Crack Nuts

This morning I discovered that ground walnuts are not good in grits. But neither, for northern readers, is maple syrup. Grits are good with butter and red-eye gravy. Walnut oil, however, when mixed with apple cider vinegar, a dash of Dijon mustard, and whatever fresh herbs you have on hand makes a terrific salad dressing.

We hear a lot these days about healthy fats—the kind that in moderation don’t contribute to belly fat, which unfortunately does not just bulge over the top of tight jeans but indicates an ominous layering of fat, as well, in and around internal organs, most notably the heart. (I can almost see John rolling his eyes and wishing for a DON’T LIKE button to click about now. But hold off, John, I’m on the verge of revealing the secret of crack nuts.)

The research article featured in this blog post is about transgenic mice and walnuts, one of the super foods as far as the brain goes. Walnuts are high in antioxidants and alpha-linolenic acid, the omega-3s also found in salmon and sardines. In early 2014, a team led by Abha Chauhan, PhD¹ fed walnuts to demented mice, created at great expense per mouse to provide scientists a remarkably (considering they’re mice) accurate glimpse into Alzheimer’s pathology, and showed that these mice became smarter. In one test, for example, the mice were placed in a round tank of cloudy water with a hidden platform and expected to learn from certain visual cues how to find this platform. Five-thousand-dollar mice with impaired brains remember how to swim but do not quickly learn spatial cues. Fed the human equivalent of 1 or 1.5 ounces of walnuts daily—10 to 15 walnut halves as measured on my Sharper Image food scale—these mice showed measurable improvements in their performance on this and other tests as compared to a control group of wild mice.

Although the research was funded in part by the California Walnut Commission, walnut growers couldn’t influence the results. Had they been less encouraging, they would have been quietly shelved, we hope.

Since eating walnuts seems to be an easy way to influence brain function, I’ve been doing food experiments (walnuts & grits being an admitted failure) and thought I’d share the ingredients of my spiced holiday nuts,² which John calls “crack nuts" because he claims they are addictive. I’d give an actual recipe if I had one: I assemble all of the ingredients on the kitchen counter and mix them together in until they taste good:

fresh raw walnuts and pecanswhich are also brain-healthy and vaguely resemble bacon in taste and appearance when toasted—hard to argue with a vegan substitute for bacon
melted coconut oil and butter, about half and half, enough to coat nuts
maple syrup, not great for you but marginally better than table sugar—just use enough to make the nuts slightly sweet and sticky
Chinese 5-spice
mix of coarse salt and espresso salt, available at Whole Foods
cayenne pepper

Mix, stir, sample, and adjust until it suits your taste. Being from the South, I like them salty. Bake on a jellyroll pan lined in parchment paper (important!) at 325º for 7 minutes. Stir and bake another 7 minutes or so, and then babysit the oven until the nuts are perfectly done: the topping is sizzling and they're just beginning to brown. If they don’t taste crispy enough after cooling, you can put them back in at 325º for a few closely watched minutes. I usually leave them in a cold oven overnight. They'll keep in airtight bags for a couple of weeks. Best wishes for a happy New Year!

Reference: Dietary supplementation of walnuts improves memory deficits and learning skills in transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease, Abha Chauhan, et al., doi: 10.3233/JAD-140675, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, published online January 2014, abstract.

¹ Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory, New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities

² It's debatable whether raw nuts are better than cooked nuts. Here's Andrew Weil's opinion.