How many holiday parties do we have left this year? Nine? Okay, maybe it just feels like it. How many people do you still have to shop for? Seventy? Okay, that one seems legit. Regardless of which particular condition you’re suffering from, I think I have something here that can help you out. It’s as welcome at a cocktail party as it is wrapped in a cello bag and presented as an edible gift. And it’s all courtesy of the craziest Santa impersonator I’ve ever met.
I worked for Mitch Omer for seven years before he passed, and I’ve never met another person that loves Christmas as much as he did. He used to lumber around the restaurant (all 6’4” of him) the entire month of December in a full Santa suit handing out candy to the kids, taking pictures and asking what they wanted for Christmas. He might pop back into the kitchen and toss Red Bulls to the kitchen staff during a busy brunch service, only to return to his favorite spot by the host desk to sign cookbooks with his signature blow torch method (He’d burn the corner of the title page, right under his elaborate autograph, and slam the book shut to extinguish the page before handing it back to you) and chat with guests on their way out, genuinely excited to hear about what they ate.
He passed away two years ago this week, and Christmas somehow feels quieter without him (probably because he’s not shouting at anybody). These spicy candied nuts were always a particular “Mitch” favorite of mine, and years ago I coerced him into giving me the recipe. These are the perfect cocktail nuts: sweet, spicy and perfectly crispy. But above all, balanced — not too much of anything trying to take over the party. I’ve seen Mitch make these with all kinds of different nut combinations, but I’ve always preferred the original pecan version. There’s something about the richness of pecans that just works with this recipe. That being said, feel free to use whatever type or types of nuts you prefer.
We’re going to be deep frying the nuts at the end, just before tossing them in the spices while they’re still hot from the oil (the secret to their perfect crispiness and deep toasty flavor). As always, exercise caution when frying at home. Add and remove ingredients from the oil slowly, and closely monitor the heat — the idea is to keep the oil between 350°F and 375°F the entire time. As soon as you add the nuts, the temperature will drop and you’ll need to adjust the heat accordingly. This is by far easiest to do with a thermometer, but if you don’t have one, never fear — these little guys are pretty forgiving of temperature fluctuations. They also keep wonderfully in a sealed container at room temp, but feel free to make a larger batch and freeze them. Because you never know when you’ll need a last minute holiday gift…or seven.
Mitch’s Hot Nuts
1 lb unsalted pecan halves
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ cup granulated sugar
Canola oil, for frying
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Take a large pot and fill it a little over halfway with water. Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. Once the water is boiling, add the pecans. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
While the pecans are boiling, add the sugar to the bottom of a large mixing bowl. With a slotted spoon or a spider, transfer the pecans from the boiling water directly into the mixing bowl. With a rubber spatula, stir immediately until the heat from the pecans melts the sugar and the nuts are evenly coated in the sugar syrup. Once they’re fully coated, drain in a colander to remove any excess sugar syrup. Set aside until ready to fry.
Grab a large, high-sided pan and fill it about halfway with the oil. Place over medium-high heat and heat the oil until a thermometer registers 375°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, place a single pecan in the oil. If it bubbles and floats, the oil is good to go. If it sinks to the bottom, the oil is too cold. Once the oil is ready, gently transfer half of the pecans to the pan. Fry, stirring constantly, until the pecans are browned and the bubbling has subsided somewhat, 4-5 minutes. Be careful not to crowd the pan, or the oil temperature will drop too much and the nuts won’t get crispy.
While the oil is heating, grab the mixing bowl you used before and add half the salt, garlic powder and cayenne. Once you’re done frying the first batch, use a spider or slotted spoon to transfer the nuts back to the mixing bowl. Toss with a rubber spatula until the pecans are evenly coated with the spices. Fry the rest of the pecans in the same manner, then transfer them to the mixing bowl and add the other half of the salt and spices. Toss again and spread out on a foil lined sheet pan to cool.
These will keep in a sealed container at room temperature for a couple of weeks, or can be frozen immediately — don’t store in the fridge!