Smoked-In Flavor: Jazz up a pantry staple with a few hours over apple wood

Last summer, a friend gifted me a big ol’ battleship of a smoker – a true barrel smoker with a fire box – a few weeks before my birthday. As I looked at it sitting in my backyard, I dreamed of smoking pork butts, ribs, beef, maybe even my own bacon.

A week later, my 37-year-old husband ended up in the hospital with a blocked artery. The doctors declared that pork and beef were no longer on the menu for him, and my bacon-making plans went up in smoke.

As our family adjusted to our new, lower-fat lifestyle, I figured out how to support my husband and use my new smoker at the same time. I smoked chicken, I smoked turkey, I smoked salmon. Eventually, I moved beyond the standards and discovered a new favorite: smoked nuts.

I started with almonds, motivated by the desire to jazz up my husband’s new go-to snack of raw almonds, approved as heart-healthy by the American Heart Association. Sure, you can get the almonds that come in a can, covered in salt and “smoke flavor,” but that’s not exactly what the doctor ordered. So I decided to smoke my own. I got some coals going, soaked some apple wood chips (my smoke of choice) and spread some almonds on an aluminum pie pan. After about 3 hours in the smoker, the almonds had taken on the sweet, earthy flavor of the smoke, retained their crunch and needed just a light dusting of sea salt (I throw a little salt into a grinder to make it superfine).

The next stop was the bulk section of the grocery store, where I picked up walnuts and pecans. I found the walnuts needed only an hour on the smoker; they really drank up the smoke and became bitter if left on too long. I made a mix of brown sugar, kosher salt, chili powder and smoked paprika, tossed about a cup of the nuts in a tablespoon of butter (yeah, yeah, butter is not part of the approved heart-healthy diet, but olive oil just doesn’t work for this), and sprinkled the sweet, salty, spicy mix on them.

Jackpot. I had just found my new favorite snack, a great holiday gift, the perfect salad accessory. The deep smoky flavor of the spiced walnuts with some creamy, tangy goat cheese and the earthy fruitiness of roasted beets tossed with arugula in a white balsamic vinaigrette came together easily, the nuts adding an almost bacony element to the salad.

Unseasoned smoked pecans worked well in a main course of smoked pecan-encrusted halibut. I combined smoked pecans, pine nuts and panko in a food processor, pressed it onto a beautiful piece of halibut brushed with garlic-infused olive oil and popped it in the oven. A simple homemade tartar sauce on the side, and dinner was served. The coating was savory and crunchy, the fish itself was simple but tender, and the sweet flavor of the garlic oil married perfectly with the smokiness of the nuts.

Smoked nuts star in desserts, too. Try banana bread made with smoked walnuts, oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies with spiced smoked pecans, or a scoop of frozen vanilla yogurt (or ice cream if you aren’t watching your cholesterol) with raspberries, chocolate sauce and chopped smoked almonds.

The best gift I got last year? My husband returned to me, all fixed up. But the second best gift was that smoker. Both are gifts that keep on giving.