Candied Nuts and a Job Interview
In late spring 2007, I packed my Peru travel gear, sent the last pages of the guidebook Moon Peru to the editor, and returned to the United States.
Job interviews ensued, and I found myself talking to editors at magazines in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and Denver. In August, my months of chit-chat finally tallied up, and I began a serious interview process with Chow.com, the uber-hip foodie website in San Francisco. Chow was looking for a food editor and recipe tester and so they scheduled a mid-morning interview with me and told me to bring my kitchen shoes.
“Kitchen shoes?” I thought to myself. That sounded daunting. While I’d tested recipes at Cook’s Illustrated magazine, at that moment, I was more in tune with how to draw guidebook maps while avoiding Peruvian pick-pockets than recording browning times for chicken. So before the interview, I knew I’d need to stretch my cooking muscles, and I decided to throw a dinner party of Chow recipes.
I invited colleagues from Denver’s city magazine 5280 (where I was contracting at the time), my sister, and friends from childhood. They sat in my backyard, drinking Chow’s gin fizzes and praising Chow’s Chinese five-spice nuts, a seasoned, candied nut blend. I gave myself a congratulatory pat on the back. This wasn’t daunting. Those crunchy, sugary nuts might send me to San Francisco after all.
But unfortunately, the Chow job interview had nothing to do with nuts and everything to do with chicken. I returned to Denver to continue freelancing. That was three years ago. Chow has won awards, and I, in turn, have grown a career of food branding and writing in Colorado. And buried deep in the pages of my recipe binder is still the print out for Chinese five-spice nuts.
This year, on the first rainy day of fall, a day when the nostalgia comes down almost as hard as the water droplets, I decided to dig through the pages of that binder. The dark coolness invited crunchy, sugar-coated nuts, warmly seasoned with China’s balanced blend of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and fennel seeds. I spent the afternoon, much more adeptly than I had three years ago, blanching a mix of almonds, cashews, and pecans, coating them in powder sugar, and frying them in small batches. While the nuts were still warm, I sprinkled them with the spice mix.
Then, I made the rounds. I dropped off a jar sweet seasoned nuts at the home of a 5280 colleague. In return, I got a hug and just-baked pumpkin muffins. I gave my sister a serving, and she gave me creamy pumpkin pie. When I got home, I settled on the sofa with a handful golden brown nuts, and popped them, enjoying the caress of cinnamon and the bite of pepper. These were nuts that I first made to take me out of Colorado, and now I couldn’t imagine eating them anywhere else.
Chinese Five-Spice Candied Nuts
Makes about 4 cups
Adapted from Chow
These warmly spiced nuts are welcoming on a crisp fall day. But be patient as you’re making them. The frying process can be slow because you must work in small batches.
4 cups raw mixed nuts, like almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts
1 cup powder sugar, sifted
Canola oil, about 4 cups
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
¼ teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly ground pepper
Over high heat, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add nuts and blanch for 30 seconds. Drain immediately, and transfer nuts to a medium bowl. Nuts will be hot and wet. Add powdered sugar and stir continuously until sugar is dissolved and evenly coats the nuts. Careful not to leave any clumps of sugar; they will not fry correctly.
Fill a large skillet with one inch oil, about 4 cups, and heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees.
Using a slotted spoon, scoop up a small batch of nuts and add them to the hot oil. Oil will immediately begin to foam. Let foam subside before adding more nuts, otherwise the oil could foam over. Fry nuts until golden brown, 45 seconds to 1 minute, and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat until all nuts are fried.
Combine Chinese five-spice powder, salt, and pepper.
While nuts are still warm, transfer them to a bowl and sprinkle with Chinese five-spice mix. Add mix little by little, and taste as you go. The fresher your powder, the stronger the seasoning will be, and adding it slowly allows you to make sure the seasoning is right for you.
Cool nuts completely and store in an airtight jar for up to two weeks.
For printable recipe, click here.