If you are at all like me and many of my friends, in the recent past you’ll have made a point of reading all newspaper and magazine reports on the health benefits of certain foods — and you’ll have noticed several patterns.
One is that a diet rich in vegetables is not only good for us, it is absolutely essential. We should be making a huge effort to eat more veggies of all colours (not just shades of green) and we should be aiming for a diet based on 70 per cent vegetable matter.
The latest reports show that veggies in our diet are even more important than medical science had previously thought.
Mothers used to say to their children, “Eat your greens,” but we should also be tucking into reds, yellows and all hues of orange, as well as various shades of green.
With so many vegetables being available all year round, it is now easy to eat a nice multi-coloured selection: have a mixed salad with every meal and if you’re snacking on a sandwich, pack it with crunchy salad greens and sliced red or yellow peppers.
Research from all over the world also continues to show that nuts make a greater contribution to our general health than was previously realised. Nuts, which have always been associated with healthy eating, contain a wide range of benefits.
One of the convenient aspects of nuts as a diet supplement is that the choice is so enormous we’ll never get bored with them. They are also available in all supermarkets and neighbourhood shops, so we never need go out of our way buy them.
The best place to buy nuts and all other kinds of dried fruits is the Mercat d’Olivar which has three specialist stalls. The supermarkets of El Corte Inglés also offer an especially good selection.
One of the reasons nuts have always been an essential component in a vegetarian diet is that they are packed with proteins and healthy fats. Nuts also have lots of fibre which helps to keep the digestive system ticking over nicely.
Nuts contain mainly healthy oils that keep the arteries free of bad cholesterol. They also contain an amino acid that boosts the cellular lining of the blood vessels.
Research has shown that eating two portions of nuts a week reduces the risk of dying from heart disease by 24 per cent.
Where you have fat of any kind you also have calories, so those with weight problems must eat only small amounts of nuts.
But even a few every day will supply us with their health-giving properties — and because they are filling, they will help us to say no to junky hi-cal snacks.
There are two kinds of nuts most of us should avoid: those that are salted and those that have been fried in oil.
Almonds and other nuts become exquisitely crunchy and tasty when fried, but they also absorb more calories — weight watchers must always shun fried nuts and seeds.
Even those without a salt problem should be avoiding salted nuts as much as possible. Excess salt doesn’t do any of us any good and there’s an awful lot on salted peanuts. Toasted nuts of all kinds are a better option than salted nuts.
The calcium content of almonds is particularly high, one of the reasons why vegans and those with dairy food allergies should be eating small amounts every day.
Research has shown that almonds can help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Almonds are also packed with vitamin E and magnesium and are rich in antioxidants that help to prevent strokes.
Majorcan almonds are smaller than those from the mainland, but they are full of flavour and are especially when good when toasted.
A favourite dessert at every restaurant specialising in Mallorcan cooking in the old days was a banana and a portion of toasted almonds — a powerful source of vitamins and minerals. You occasionally come across this dessert at some restaurants in small towns and villages.
Peanuts grow underground and are a legume, not a nut, but we eat them as if they were nuts and they are also full of vitamins.
They have good levels of the B vitamins, including folate, riboflavin and niacin, which boost growth and metabolism. Their antioxidant content is as high as strawberries.
Cashews are another legume we eat as nuts. They are a good source of healthy fats, magnesium and copper, which give us energy, help prevent heart disease and promote strong bones.
They also have a high iron content, which is essential for making haemoglobin, the red pigment in blood. Most of us get this from red meat, so cashews are especially good for vegetarians and vegans. They also boost the immune system.
Brazil nuts should be on everyone’s shopping list because they are a good source of healthy fats as well as vitamins A, B1,B2, niacin and iodine.
But most important of all is their high content of selenium, an important antioxidant that is essential for the immune system, thyroid hormone metabolism and reproduction.
Research at the University of Illinois found that the selenium in Brazil nuts may help precent breast cancer by blocking free radicals.
Plants absorb selenium from the earth but in many countries, especially Britain, there is very little of it. Some farming areas of the United States still have good supplies in the soil.
Three Brazil nuts every day will provide our daily need of selenium. The best place I know for Brazil nuts is Mercadona: a 200 grs bag of shelled nuts costs around €2.80. It’s extremely difficult to get Brazil nuts out of their shells, so always buy them shelled.
I don’t read or hear much about macadamia nuts but they have been on sale at the dried fruit stalls for ages. They have a higher monounsaturated fat content than olive oil which means they are good for the heart.
They are also a good source of Omega-3, 6 and 9 fats, which help to promote brain function and a healthy hormone balance.
Pistachios are also crucial for the healthy functioning of the heart. They can cut cholesterol levels and prevent narrowing of the arteries, so they lower the risk of heart disease.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that those who ate three ounces of pistachios every day for a month lowered their blood cholesterol.
Pistachios contain an antioxidant called lutein, also found in fruit and leafy green vegetables, which reduces the bad cholesterol. The presence of this antioxidant helps to prevent heart disease.
But for a good supply of antioxidants you can’t beat walnuts, which also provide good protection against cancer.
Although walnuts are not used in Spanish cooking as much as almonds, hazelnuts or pinenuts, they do have an important place on the dried fruit stalls, in the kitchen and on the dining table.
Shelled and unshelled, they are always available in local markets and supermarkets. The walnut we are familiar with in Europe is called ‘Juglans regia’ by botanists, although it also goes under the names of ‘English walnut’ and ‘Persian walnut’.
The French are very fond of walnut oil’s superb flavour, which makes an excellent dressing for salads. Walnuts broken into quarters also combine nicely with salad greens of all kinds to give interesting flavours and contrasts of textures.
Chopped spinach that has been gently sautéed in virgen extra olive oil (don’t parboil it previously) is also enhanced by the addition of roughly chopped walnuts.
Stuffings for meat and poultry get extra texture and flavour from walnuts, as do cakes and desserts of all kinds. They can also be used for thickening sauces.
Walnuts straight from the shell are often eaten as a simple lunchtime dessert in Spain, Italy and other Mediterranean countries, and are a memorable way of finishing off a good red wine.
In parts of Spain, walnuts are preserved in a thick sugar and water syrup using a method that involves cooking them in the syrup on different days, a process similar to the one used for doing glacé chestnuts.
When cooking with walnuts there is one golden rule you must always follow, regardless of whether you are making a sweet or a savoury dish: boil the shelled walnuts in plenty of water for two or three minutes.
This not only gets rid of most of the dark skin, it also washes away strong tannin flavours we don’t want in the finished dish.
First wash the nuts several times in cold water before putting them into a biggish pot of cold water, bringing them to the boil and letting them boil briskly for three minutes.
Drain them into a colander and give them a final rinse under running cold water. Walnuts have such an intense taste that there is still plenty of it left even after all this washing.
Basque cooks use walnuts in a sauce for braised leg of pork. The kernels of 12 walnuts (after being washed as above) are pounded to a smooth pulp in a mortar.
A wineglass of milk is stirred in and this mixture is simmered in a suitable saucepan for about 15 minutes, some of the braising juices are stirred in and the thickish mixture is spooned over the braised meat.
Walnuts are a good food for vegetarians and vegans as they contain 18 per cent protein — making them a major source of second class protein among fruit and vegetables.
Walnuts are good for the liver and they can ease constipation as they have a laxative effect. But they are not as remedial as the ancient herbalists thought.
The early sciences were very much based on folklore and there was the theory that the shape of medicinal herbs indicated their use.
According to this belief, heart-shaped leaves or flowers had cardiac uses and seeds that looked like micro kidneys cured renal ailments.
The Greek word for walnut. ‘karyon’, means head because the shell resembles the skull and the kernel, the brain.
The early herbalists thought the kernel could be used for mental illness and the husk was kept for every kind of scalp ailment including dandruff and greying hair.
Walnut husks do contain a strong and fast brown dye, and a poultice of crushed husks rubbed into the hair and left overnight did get rid of grey hairs…at least for a time.