Off the Beaten Aisle: Marcona Almonds

By: J.M. Hirsch

Five years can make a world of difference for an almond.

That’s about how long it took for Spain’s addictively good marcona almond to go from obscure gourmet goodie to a Trader Joe’s staple with serious culinary cred.

Why do you care? Because marconas are not your average almond. These wide, teardrop-shaped treats are the filet mignon of the nut world.

Almost literally.

The flavor and texture of marcona almonds are entirely different than the more common California almond. A higher fat content helps explain the textural difference – tender-crunchy and moist.

As for flavor, think uber-savory and steak-like. And it doesn’t hurt that they typically are prepared by being fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with salt.

Once only a limited import, marcona almonds now are widely available, often sold near the cheese, olives and other so-called gourmet items.

As marconas have become more popular, new varieties are appearing, including some seasoned with rosemary and others with their brown skins intact.

But the best variant yet is marcona almond butter. Similar in texture to peanut butter, this spreadable treat is dangerously good.

In Spain, marcona almonds show up with savory and sweet companions. They pair nicely with cheeses, often are crushed and mixed into ground figs, and are added liberally to turron, a sweet honey-based Spanish nougat.

But what can you do with them?
  • Lightly crush them and sprinkle them over just about any salad. For dressing, go with a simple vinaigrette; the flavor of these almonds is too good to cover up.
  • Add them to your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. The salty-sweet play between the chocolate and almonds will leave you breathless.
  • Toss lightly cooked green beans with vinaigrette, then sprinkle them with crushed marconas and crumbled aged gouda. For the full recipe, go here.
  • Grind marcona almonds in the food processor, then combine them with panko breadcrumbs and use them to coat chicken tenders. The tenders can be fried in a skillet or baked.
  • Sprinkle crushed marconas over purchased hummus, then drizzle with olive oil, a bit of lemon juice and a sprinkle of smoked paprika. If you make hummus from scratch, add the almonds to the processor at the same time as the chickpeas.
  • Spike marcona almond butter with hot pepper sauce, then toss it with warm pasta and chopped scallions for an intense “peanut” noodle that can be eaten warm or cold.

Tomato Sweet Potato Soup With Rosemary Marcona Almonds

This soup is great whatever the weather. When it’s cool, serve it hot. When it’s hot, serve it cool (and topped with a spoonful of sour cream).

Start to finish: 30 minutes
Servings: 8
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups peeled, diced sweet potato (1 large)
28-ounce can diced tomatoes
15-ounce can tomato sauce
2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and ground black pepper
½ cup chopped marcona almonds
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic and sweet potato. Sauté until the sweet potatoes start to brown, about 10 minutes.

Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and chicken broth. Bring to a simmer, then cook until the potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes.

Working in batches if needed, transfer the soup to a blender and puree until smooth. Return the soup to the pan, stir in the vinegar, then season with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, mix together the almonds and rosemary. Ladle the soup into serving bowls, then sprinkle the almond mixture over each serving.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 149 calories; 73 calories from fat (49 percent of total calories); 8 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 16 g carbohydrate; 4 g protein; 3 g fiber; 820 mg sodium.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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