Five years can make a world of difference for an almond.
That's about how long it took for Spain's addictively good marcona almond to go from obscure gourmet goodie to a Trader Joe's staple with serious culinary cred.
Why do you care? Because marconas are not your average almond. These wide, teardrop shaped treats are the filet mignon of the nut world.
The flavor and texture of marcona almonds are entirely different than the more common California almond. A higher fat content helps explain the textural difference — tender-crunchy and moist. As for flavor, think uber savory and steak-like. And it doesn't hurt that they typically are processed by being fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with salt.
Once only a limited import, marcona almonds now are widely available, often sold near the cheese, olives and other so-called gourmet items.
As marconas have become more popular, new varieties are appearing, including some seasoned with rosemary and others with their brown skins intact.
But the best variant yet is marcona almond butter. Similar in texture to peanut butter, this spreadable treat is dangerously good.
In Spain, marcona almonds show up with savory and sweet companions. They pair nicely with cheeses, often are crushed and mixed into ground figs, and are added liberally to turron, a sweet honey-based Spanish nougat.
For more ideas for using marcona almonds, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column over on Food Network: http://bit.ly/AvM5ou
Tomato Sweet Potato Soup with Rosemary Marcona Almonds
This soup is great whatever the weather. When it's cool, serve it hot. When it's hot, serve it cool (and topped with a spoonful of sour cream).
Start to finish: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups peeled, diced sweet potato (1 large)
28-ounce can diced tomatoes
15-ounce can tomato sauce
2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped marcona almonds
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
In a large saucepan over medium-high, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, garlic and sweet potato. Saute until the sweet potatoes start to brown, about 10 minutes.
Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and chicken broth. Bring to a simmer, then cook until the potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes.
Working in batches if needed, transfer the soup to a blender and puree until smooth. Return the soup to the pan, stir in the vinegar, then season with salt and pepper.
In a small bowl, mix together the almonds and rosemary. Ladle the soup into serving bowls, then sprinkle the almond mixture over each serving.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 149 calories; 73 calories from fat (49 percent of total calories); 8 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 16 g carbohydrate; 4 g protein; 3 g fiber; 820 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, "High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking." His Off the Beaten Aisle column also appears at FoodNetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.