If you are also stuck in a “Mad Men“-inspired reverie, you, too, might be moved by a very 1960-inspired aesthetic. For me this includes food. I like so-called “old fashioned” things like bundt cake, shrimp cocktail…foods that evoke the Rat Pack era and a sensibility I perceive as sophisticated. These candied walnuts fit right into this retro-cool category… They were a usual appetizer in Chinese restaurants when Chinese restaurants first became popular in big cities in America. This was before we understood the concept of “regional Chinese cuisine” or had easy access to ingredients like bok choy and rice vinegar. And most of the foods the mother-of-pearl laden and lantern-strewn restaurants served in those days were saucy and deep-fried. But they were, and are, delicious. And candied walnuts, which were sometimes placed on the table for munching, or ordered as an appetizer, or tossed into chicken and beef dishes, were fairly ubiquitous. They’re not so easy to find now that our Chinese restaurants offer more nuanced cooking, but they’ve got serious charms. These are truly like candy, sweet and crunchy, marvelously caramelized, a great thing to have around at cocktail hour, to toss into dinner salads or pasta dishes, to sprinkle on top of vanilla ice cream, or to absentmindedly munch while you’re watching (and re-watching) “Mad Men.”
Note: When I was making these, my iPod ignited the song “The Well and the Lighthouse” by the Arcade Fire, and it was a good match for the task. If you like, share your favorite cooking music with me here.
Makes about 2 cups
Adapted from a recipe in The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young
1/2 pound shelled walnuts, preferably wholes and halves only
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups vegetable oil
1. Line kitchen counter with about a foot of heavy aluminum foil. In a saucepan bring 1/2 quart cold water to boil over high heat. Add walnuts and let the water return to a boil. When the water comes back up to a boil, drain the walnuts in a colander and immediately transfer them to a large bowl. Pour sugar over the walnuts and stir continually with a rubber spatula until the sugar is completely dissolved by the heat of the walnuts. The walnuts should be shiny and coated in liquid sugar.
2. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Carefully add the walnuts with a slotted metal spoon, spreading them into the wok. Cook undisturbed for 2 minutes, letting the walnuts begin to brown. Using the slotted spoon, carefully stir the walnuts in the wok to make sure they brown evenly. Fry an additional 1 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown.
3. When the nuts are golden, immediately turn off the heat. Working very carefully and very quickly, being removing the hot nuts with the slotted spoon to the foil, leaving as much space between the walnuts as possible. Do not put the walnuts on the foil in clusters, as they will harden that way. Take care: The nuts will be very hot. To avoid burns, do not touch them until they have cooled completely. Carefully towel-dry the nuts to remove as much oil as possible. When they have cooled, transfer to an airtight container.