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Almonds are a smashing success

What does a flavorful and versatile nut that has been enjoyed since antiquity have to do with the cuisine of the moment? Plenty, when the nut is the almond and it stars in the emerging culinary technique called “smashing.”

Smashing is the term some chefs use for incorporating two different ethnic flavors in a dish in a bold, direct way that maintains their individuality. It creates diverse layers of flavor that makes the dish as a whole more appealing. The technique was on the lips of creative culinarians recently at the Almond Board of California chef’s conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif.

Chef Ida Shen, assistant director, culinary, of Cal Dining at the University of California at Berkeley, wowed her fellow conferees with a smashing example called Southeast Asian Citrus Sope with Baby Banana Almond Tempura. The dish borrowed from Asian tradition with tempura batter accented with almonds and from Mexican cuisine with a sope, or thick, saucer-like tortilla, made from a mixture of almond flour and masa.

Shen says she lent a “sweeter, more delicate and buttery” nuance to the dish by switching to almonds over other nuts with more pronounced flavors that are traditionally used in Southeast Asia.

“It made the Southeast Asian food a little more toned down and refined,” says Shen. “Almonds I associate with fine dining and desserts and a more subtle profile. So it was interesting to use almonds and still have a textural component to the food, but at a more refined level.”

Adding almond meal to masa in the sope made it “a lot more tender, a lot lighter and much more flavorful,” says Shen. “It was a nice combination of the nuttiness and the corniness of the masa.”

Topping the sope were baby bananas deep fried in a tempura batter of almond meal over a salad of finger limes, orange segments, red and green cabbage, red bell pepper, carrots and jicama. A chiffonade of banana blossoms and a sprinkling of sliced, toasted almonds completed the presentation.

Smashing like this is not to be confused with fusion, or blending flavors to create new effects.

“The difference is that the flavors [of smashing] are not muddled,” Shen points out.  “In some cases, fusion was actually more confusion, when flavors and ingredients were applied in ways they perhaps should not have been.”

Whether enjoyed in flavorful applications or eaten simply as a crunchy, tasty snack, almonds go way back in human history. The fruit of a tree native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, almonds were domesticated there millennia ago and carried to the wider world. Since then, almonds have made their mark in everything from Spanish romesco sauce to Italian marzipan to Indian curries. Today, almonds are a frequent accent in globally inspired, locally based American cooking, including trendy, chef-driven California cuisine. In fact, the Golden State is the source of about 80 percent of the world’s almonds.

At the conference, Shen was one of many chefs impressed by the versatility of almonds: “It dawned on me that almonds come in so many shapes and forms—blanched, natural, sliced, chopped, and so on. They translate well into almost any culture’s dishes.”

Call it smashing or what you will, an increasing number of Americans are enjoying food with more diverse flavor sensations. The Korean barbecue tacos of the Kogi food trucks in Los Angeles are notable examples. Other operators are serving up everything from sushi burritos filled with Asian and Latin ingredients to Korean beef sandwiches between “buns” of griddled Asian sticky rice.

“I think smashing has been part of our culture for a while,” says Shen. “Our students are open to it. In fact, my kids smash their foods all the time by opening the refrigerator and seeing what we have. What you call American food is no longer just that.

This post is sponsored by Almond Board of California

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