The Beauty of Cooking with Unripe Ingredients

Rachel Tepper Paley
May 29, 2014

Raw, unripe almonds. Photo credit: Bart Sadowski/StockFood

The first time Jonathan Benno, the executive chef at the Italian restaurant Lincoln in New York City, set eyes on a crate of unripe almonds, fuzzy and green, he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with them.

That was 12 years ago. As a sous chef at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Benno soon learned to carve the inner nut from the velvety outer husk and sprinkle them raw atop a salad of fresh greens.

He never looked back. In April, Benno snagged a 20-pound shipment during the nuts’ month-long growing season, and has gone, well, nutty for them.

At this early stage, the entire almond is edible: The outer green layer—which becomes a hard shell when mature—has a mild, bean-like flavor, while the white “nut” within is filled with a jelly-like substance that tastes, as The Kitchn puts it, “like biting too close to the rind of a watermelon.” 

At Lincoln, Benno pickles the entire green almond, husk and all, in a hot, briny liquid before serving it “shaved really thin on a mandoline” alongside another “unripe” ingredient: deep-fried soft-shell crab. ”Texturally, there’s the crunch you would associate with a pickle,” he explained. “[When] you eat them whole, there’s a little bitterness to them, which would be very pronounced if you ate them raw.”

The chef will serve the dish as long as his supply of green almonds lasts—about four or five more weeks. Lincoln’s menu also features other early-season eats: When green tomatoes appear in the marketplace, they’re served on cheese plates in the form of a green tomato mostarda, a syrupy Italian condiment of candied fruits and mustard. And when Benno finds young spring garlic—which tastes like a subtler version of full-grown garlic—he sweats the green tips as one would onions, using them to flavor the restaurant’s panelle, a rich chickpea cake. 

"[Spring] is the time to capture most young or green fruits and vegetables," Benno told us, so get thee to a marketplace before they ripen. And don’t be afraid of a little green: Often, it’s the sign of subtler, more delicate flavors, ideal for springtime masterpieces.