By the time the holidays roll around, I always have a ridiculously long list of recipes I want to make. I imagine myself whipping up seven different appetizers for a cocktail party at home with friends, baking gorgeous desserts for the neighbors, and wowing everyone at the work potluck with my slow-cooker prowess. I stash them in email files, save screenshots on my iPad, and tear out pages from magazines. Then the reality of holiday chaos hits. People are coming over tomorrow, I'm hungover from last night's office party, and my fridge is hopelessly empty. This, my friends, is when a serious stash of assorted nuts comes in handy.
I can't think of another snack that nails the triple C (classic, comforting, classy) trifecta as perfectly. They're total crowd-pleasers that don't require any prep more than dumping 'em into pretty bowls for serving. Whether you're having a last-minute get-together or a more elaborate affair, the humble nut is a sure-fire solution. Plus, now that fat is cool, they're practically considered superfoods. So even your health fanatic friends will be set.
Nothing against plain nuts, but when I'm having people over—especially during the holidays—I like to step up my game. Show some personality. Luckily, Trader Joe's has a massive assortment of pretty much every kind of flavored nut you can imagine. Naturally, I had to taste all 12 varieties I could get my hands on.
While most of the options were okay, just okay is booooorrrring. A great bag of nuts should be fresh-tasting, with a satisfying crunch and smooth texture. But I was also looking for flavors that made them fascinatingly tasty and unexpected. There were six that truly stood out above the rest.
The other great thing about nuts is that they will last for months in a cool, dark cabinet. So when holiday craziness hits, you can spend zero minutes thinking or freaking out, and five minutes dumping your favorite flavors into pretty bowls. Voila! Instant party food that doesn't require any kitchen clean-up and will yield non-stop compliments from your guests: These are amazing. What are they? Where did you get them? Lili, you have to come try these. You get to keep your I-have-great-taste cred and your sanity.
Just in case you need ideas for what kinds of drinks to serve with each pick, I offer a few pairing suggestions. After all, what's a holiday gathering (or really any gathering, in my opinion) without a little booze.
Sweet and Spicy Pecans
Best for: If you can't make up your mind between sweet and savory.
Serve with: Craft beer. Think dark and malty, to play up the sweetness, or hoppy to highlight the spice.
Some candied nuts are way too sweet and way too hard. These are softly crunchy and just a little sweet. At first they don't taste particularly spicy, but the subtle heat hits you on the tail end, and grows with each bite. Just spicy enough to make leave the back of your your tongue all tingly, but not so spicy that your lips and mouth go numb. Well done, Trader Joe's. ($3.99 for 5 ounces; 80 cents per ounce)
Old Fashioned Blister Peanuts
Best for: The purist (or anyone on a budget)
Serve with: Classic martinis or really, any favorite cocktail
Ok, so this isn't technically a flavored nut, but I'd never heard of blistered peanuts before so I was definitely intrigued (I hope this admission doesn't ruin my credibility here—I've had boiled peanuts and love them in all their slimy, lentil-y glory!). A quick Google search told me that "blister-fried" peanuts are a Southern tradition, which is said to have originated in eastern North Carolina. Basically, the peanuts are soaked in water to remove their skins, and when they're roasted, the skin blisters, resulting in an extra-crunchy texture. I was skeptical that they'd actually taste any different from regular roasted, salted peanuts, but they definitely do—and they're insanely crave-worthy. Bonus: They're also easy on your wallet, and the flavor is flexible enough to go well with pretty much any cocktail you conjure up. ($2.69 for 13 ounces; 21 cents per ounce)
Roasted & Salted Marcona Almonds with Rosemary
Best for: Special occasions
Serve with: White wine or bubbly Cava or Prosecco
Imported from Spain, Marcona almonds are considered the crème de la crème of nuts—rounder and fatter than ordinary California almonds with a softer crunch, and a sweeter, more delicate flavor. They're also rarer, which makes them more expensive (and maybe taste even better??). These are right on point. Whole needles of savory-piney dried rosemary and plenty of salt offer the perfect contrast to the almost wet, sweet-cream nut ($6.49 for 6 ounces; $1.08 per ounce)
Wasabi Flavored Almonds
Best for: Adventurous spice lovers
Serve with: A creamy, refreshing wheat beer to soothe the burn (I love Hitachino Nest White Ale)
One bite of these nuts and I had a seriously delicious, runny-nosed rush. Amazing. If you love spicy-salty-umami things as much as I do, you will immediately be infatuated with these. The intense "wasabi seasoning" (second ingredient) gets its flavor from soy sauce and horseradish powder. Not actually wasabi (oh well), NOT subtle and NOT lightly applied. Each almond delivers a heavy dose, which is exactly as it should be in my book. Other than crunch, and a slightly nutty aftertaste, you may even find yourself thinking almond? what almond? Wasabi flavor vehicle is a more accurate description. ($5.99 for 14 ounces; 43 cents per ounce; 43 cents per ounce)
Mesquite Smoked Seasoned Almonds
Best for: Salt lovers and smoky bacon or barbecue fans
Serve with: Whiskey
If you like things that taste like you licked a block of smoky salt, you've come to the right place. Again, definitely not subtle, but delicious nonetheless. Especially when it gets all mixed up in your mouth with the crunchy, mildly creamy, roasted almond. The smoky mesquite flavor borders on tasting a tiny bit fake (says "natural mesquite smoke flavor" in the ingredient list), but I'm pretty sure that's a good thing if smoke-flavored stuff is your guilty pleasure. But even if you don't fit into that category, don't let the smokiness scare you: it's not too over-the-top and it's pretty darn tasty. ($6.99 for 16 ounces)
Best for: Sugar fiends
Serve with: A sweet, carbonated mixed drink like gin and tonic, or a nice aged rum on the rocks
I'm more of a savory girl than sweet. But this rich, milky, not-too-too-sweet coconutty coating—thick enough to count as a candy coating, I think—works quite well with the buttery cashew inside. After my first bite, I promptly turned the package over to examine the label: coconut milk, coconut powder, and coconut oil. Ah ha! That's how they got it to taste so tropical-creamy. ($6.99 for 14 ounces; 50 cents per ounce)