Robust, fresh and a delight to cook with, almonds are packed with vitamin E and other minerals
A stalwart nut in Christmas cake, pudding and mincemeat, almonds figure prominently on the seasonal shopping list. For freshness, they're a safer bet than walnuts and hazelnuts: less prone to rancidity, so more tolerant of languishing forgotten at the back of a cupboard. When lightly baked, their creamy neutrality gives way to a much nuttier, crunchier character, making them seriously addictive. It's just so tempting to pick them out from the muesli, or the pilaf, and with an aperitif, you can easily nibble your way through a small bowlful without noticing. Ground finely, almonds give you that gloriously squidgy consistency in cakes, frangipani-filled tarts and marzipan. Toasted flaked almonds look gorgeous on top of a creamy trifle.
Why are they good for me?
High-protein almonds are ideal for sating the appetite in a healthy way. They are rich in monounsaturated fats; much research now links this type of fat with a reduced risk of heart disease. These nuts are one of the richest sources of vitamin E, which seems to protect against UV light damage and Alzheimer's disease. By munching away on almonds you can top up on important minerals: manganese, which helps the body form strong bones and regulates blood sugar; and magnesium, which is essential for organ, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and regulating blood pressure.
Eat almonds with the skin on: it contains an impressive collection of flavonoids that act as antioxidants and enhance the effect of vitamin E that could be beneficial as we age.
Where to buy and what to pay
Almonds are always expensive, but significantly cheaper if you buy those with the healthy skin still on, not the blanched sort. Guide price for skin-on whole almonds: £6.60-£8/kg. Nuts often cost less from the home baking, rather than the snack, section of supermarkets.
Joanna Blythman is the author of What To Eat (Fourth Estate, £9.99). To order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Aromatic chicken with almonds
This lovely curry comes from a book by Julie Sahni. It is a firm favourite in our household. Serve with rice or naan breads and some fried okra.
6-8 chicken thighs depending on size, skin removed
Half lemon, juiced
2 tsp salt
4 onions, peeled and finely sliced
3 tbsp flavourless oil
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
4cm ginger, peeled and grated
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
Half tsp turmeric
Half-1 tsp cayenne pepper, to taste
1 stick cinnamon
4 black or 8 green cardamom pods
250g tomato passata
120g ground almonds
A small bunch coriander, roughly chopped
80g flaked almonds, toasted
1 Prick the chicken thighs all over with a fork, and rub with the lemon juice and salt. Leave it to sit for at least half an hour - if possible overnight.
2 Fry the onions in 1 tbsp of oil in a heavy-based pan with a pinch of salt on a medium heat, until they are light brown (about 15 minutes), stirring regularly.
3 Add the garlic and ginger. Cook for about 3-4 minutes, stirring all the time. Then add the ground spices and toast for several minutes. Add the whole spices and brown for 2 minutes, then add the tomato passata, ground almonds and 250ml hot water. Bring to the boil.
4 In a large frying pan quickly fry the chicken in oil until it has a little colour. Add to the sauce. Simmer very gently for about an hour until the chicken is very tender; preferably in a low oven. Stir occasionally to stop it sticking, adding a little hot water if necessary.
5 Once the chicken is tender, leave to sit for a good half hour before serving. Scatter with the chopped coriander and toasted flaked almonds to serve.
Rosie Sykes is head chef of Fitzbillies (fitzbillies.com) and co-author of The Kitchen Revolution (Ebury Press, £25). To order a copy for £19.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk
Photo: Almonds: rich in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian