Ruth Reichl tweeted about the Hollywood market this weekend: "Stunned by abundance. Hollywood Farmers Market: strawberries, Kishus, tomatoes, oysters, avocados, herbs, lettuce, live crabs. LA in winter." 140 characters is pretty limiting, so we'll forgive the omission of one of the market's more uncommon products: locally grown macadamia nuts.
They aren't a big cash crop in California. Like most tropicals, they love water and continuously warm weather, neither of which are in large abundance together -- hot and dry is our usual state of being -- in our dozen-plus climate zones. But a few trees flourish here and there, and if you're up for exertion required to get them open, they're now in season. Just in time for Rosanne Barr's new reality show. Yes, it's relevant, but just barely.
You can try to crack the shell of a macadamia with a hand cracker, but by the third nut you're going to be wishing you had giant man hands. Thankfully, mac lovers have invested some time and money into the creation of Mac-specific nutcrackers - table-top models that politely keep the shells within the confines of a rimmed tray while allowing you to extract the fatty nut meats with the ease of lever physics. Or you can go semi-old school and grab a brick. You might want to wear goggles though.
So why bother? The macadamia nut is a super fatty nut (nearly 80% of it is oil) with a trace of sugar. Roast it and it becomes an aromatic nut candy with a hint of caramel. Makes you wonder why people bother gilding the lily with a chocolate coating.
Repeated droughts (like we have here) won't kill a macadamia nut tree, but the harvests will end up pretty stunted. It's why the bulk of our nation's macadamia nuts are imported from eastern Australia, South America, and Hawaii. Regardless, there are a couple of varietals that originated here in California. The James, which came from La Habra Heights; the Burdick from Encinitas; the Cate from Malibu; and the Vista from Rancho Santa Fe. The Cate and the James are the most common for California commercial growing (and are the ones you'll most likely find at the local markets), but if you're looking for an easy homegrown cultivar to plant, try the Vista. It has a thinner shell. Dog owners beware though: the macadamia nut is highly toxic to canines.
When shopping for locally grown macadamias, look for large marbles without cracks or holes. After you've shelled them -- don't store them too long in their shells -- you should dry them out in a low oven (120 degrees F) from sunrise to sunset. They're great raw, almost juicy actually. But if you're going to store them for a spell, you should roast them. To roast them on the stove top, put a single layer in a cast iron pan and rotate over a medium high flame. When they start to get "California tan", take them off the heat and let cool. They'll keep in an airtight jar in the fridge or you can freeze them in an airtight bag. Sweet roasted macadamia nut butter with a tart goat cheese and a little honey and salt will convince you that it was worth the effort.