Cracking stuff: Mark Hix adds crunch to classic autumn dishes with nutritious nuts

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Nuts are a great fresh or store-cupboard standby to have around in the kitchen. As well as their obvious nutritional benefits – they are high in protein and many essential vitamins – they make a lovely crunchy addition to starters, salads and desserts. Our climate is well suited to the growing of nuts, but sadly a lot of our nut trees seemed to have disappeared and we tend to rely hugely on foreign imports. If, however, you are a bit of a forager, then try getting the kids involved – as these days most of them seem to think nuts simply come out of a packet.

Mixed beets with goat's curd and pickled walnut dressing

Serves 4

Over the years I have become a bit of a pickled walnut addict and I really appreciate their versatility in the kitchen, as both an ingredient and an integral part of a salad dressing. Pickled walnuts are readily available in supermarkets and good delicatessens.

Try to use a mixture of coloured beets if you possibly can (there are some great old varieties popping up in farmers' markets these days), but remember to cook them separately, or they may all end up red.

1kg mixed beetroots
A handful of small salad leaves such as buckler leaf sorrel, red mustard, corn salad etc, washed and dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp of goat's curd or soft goat's cheese

For the dressing

4 pickled walnuts and 3-4tbsp of the pickling liquid
4-6tbsp rapeseed oil

Cook the beetroots in boiling salted water in their skins (separately if using different coloured ones) for about an hour until tender, then drain and leave to cool. Remove the skins, using a pair of gloves with the red ones to avoid hand stains, then cut into chunks and/or wedges.

For the dressing, chop the pickled walnuts and mix with the pickling liquor and the rapeseed oil and season.

To serve, arrange the beetroot, goat's curd or goat's cheese and the salad leaves in serving bowls or plates, season lightly and spoon over the dressing.

Autumn squash soup with walnut pesto

Serves 4

There is an abundance of squashes and pumpkins on the market at the moment; the deep orange-fleshed varieties offer the best flavour and colour.

A good knob of butter
1 small leek, roughly chopped and washed
1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1kg ripe, orange-fleshed squash or pumpkin, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
1.5 litres vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pesto

40g good-quality walnuts, lightly toasted
50g fresh basil leaves and any soft stalks
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
A good pinch of sea salt
4tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
2tbsp freshly grated mature Pecorino (or use 6tbsp Parmesan)
100-120ml extra virgin olive oil (preferably a sweeter variety)

For the pesto: put the walnuts, basil, garlic and salt in a liquidiser and coarsely blend. Add the cheese and blend again briefly, then transfer to a bowl.

Gently cook the leek and onion in the butter in a thick-bottomed saucepan until soft. Add the squash and vegetable stock, bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper then simmer for 20 minutes.

Blend in a liquidiser until smooth, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve. Re-heat the soup and adjust the consistency with a little vegetable stock or water if necessary and re-season with salt and pepper. Serve with a spoonful of the pesto on top.

Pan-fried ray with hazelnuts

Serves 4

If you keep up with the latest news about sustainable fishing, you will know that the poor old common skate is on the endangered list these days. Some of the smaller varieties of ray are still OK to eat, however, so ask your fishmonger for advice, or consult the Marine Conservation Society's website.

Ray has a very unusual texture which is unlike that of any other fish and it can handle all sorts of flavours.

4 ray wings, weighing about 250-300g each, skinned
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A little vegetable or corn oil for frying
120g unsalted butter
40 or so shelled hazelnuts, roughly chopped
2tbsp chopped parsley
The juice of half a lemon

Season the ray wings, heat the oil in a large, preferably non-stick frying pan and cook the wings for about 5 minutes on each side on a medium heat, adding a couple of knobs of butter during cooking to give them a nice colour. Remove the wings and keep warm.

Add the rest of the butter to the pan and when it begins to foam, add the hazelnuts and parsley, then the lemon juice.

To serve, transfer the wings to warmed serving plates and spoon the butter and nuts over.

Nut clusters

Makes about 20

Do you remember those delicious nut clusters from your childhood? As well as tasting fantastic, they were also dead easy to make. The children will probably love getting involved in making this recipe – but it's worth making a few extras, as they'll be gone in no time.

50g shelled weight of good-quality hazelnuts
50g shelled weight of good-quality walnuts
50g shelled weight of good-quality almonds
500g good-quality 70 per cent dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces

Place the chocolate in a clean bowl over a pan of simmering water. Make sure you don't get the slightest bit of water in the chocolate or it will solidify and you will have to start all over again.

Stir the chocolate every so often until it has melted, then remove from the heat.

Chop the nuts coarsely with a heavy knife then stir into the chocolate. (Or you can leave the nuts whole.) Leave the nut mixture to cool a little in the bowl; line a tray with a sheet of baking parchment and drop teaspoonfuls on to the parchment. You can also use those little petits fours cups. Leave to set, then transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool place or the refrigerator until required.

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