When I was young, we always had a bowl of nuts in their shells on the coffee table for fall and winter holiday events like Thanksgiving Dinner. It was usually one of the first things  my mom set out, and my sister and I would become a little fanatical about getting to use that metal claw-like nutcracker and the accompanying pick to get to the prized nutmeat inside.

My favorites were hazelnuts; we called them filberts back then. I loved their flavor, but boy were those the most challenging to open. It took a mighty grip to crack those hard shells. Walnuts were really complicated with their little chambers – here was where that pick earned its keep. And almonds were a snap. Those soft, woody shells never fought back. I remember those times, kneeling at the coffee table, elbow to elbow, hyper focused at our task and quiet as mice. I bet my mother, busy in the kitchen, was pretty thankful for that bowl of nuts, too.

I still get satisfaction from cracking nuts and mining them for the treasure inside, but honestly, for Thanksgiving I now want them to give back a little bit more. So I toast them, and add some spicy flavor that complements their fragrance and rich flavor. Add a little salty-sweet contrast, and you’ve got a heirloom worthy starter to serve with cocktails.

More Cooking Light Family Favorite Thanksgiving Dishes: