Gone A-Nutting (Black Walnuts)
The holidays are here–hooray! But arriving with the holidays was a new eating-local concern. Would I be caught between the equally poor options of giving in… or thwarting tradition? After all, Thanksgiving was the time Barbara Kingsolver broke down and decided cranberries must be served, local or not.
Of course Wisconsin cranberries are a snap (including organic)! I had already made homemade cranberry juice, sweetened with local honey.
But now another missing local food began to make its presence felt. What would I do without nuts?
I mean nuts go into pies, cookies (okay without regular sugar, those would be fewer) and snacks. They are even key to the homemade granola I keep around for late-sleeping students on winter break.
Now all this took me back to my childhood and our trips to see my grandparents. They lived in a small Iowa town, far enough away to make every trip special. The visits were always warm and happy–and filled with unique and special treats like parched corn, homemade ice cream sodas and (insert drum roll now)… black walnuts. Yes!
So, with black walnuts on the radar, we set out to find them–and it was surprisingly easy! My oldest stumbled across them in a park near her apartment, I discovered some near a coffee shop I visit. And the best? My swim instructor, along with some of her neighbors had trees. With fall winding down, everyone was happy to have help ridding their yards of the prolific globes. Just set out with piles of empty bags and come back with nuts.
With such a bounty, why isn’t everyone collecting black walnuts? We were about to find out.
Processing Black Walnuts
Black Walnuts are covered with a thick green hull that (at least online) is the stuff of legend. There are even tales of people driving their cars over them to remove this barrier. In the end, this wasn’t the hardship we feared with a technique my husband quickly developed.
He waits until the hulls have softened a little and aren’t completely green (most were already this way to start). Then he slices through part of the hull to get a start, then rubs the rest off under running water using some tough nitrile gloves. Then he rubs them down with a nylon wood stripping brush to finish the cleaning. Before long he even developed real speed.
People also use a mechanical corn shucker to take off the hulls. If we continue this into next year, we may be on the market for one ourselves.
After the hulls are removed the nuts need to be dried or they can quickly develop mold. I started loading layers of hulled nuts onto a rimmed baking sheet and putting them in my oven on 170F, cycling it on and off to keep them from getting too “cooked.” This seemed to be effective.
The final step, which we haven’t yet mastered is removing the nuts from the shell. My husband has been cracking them in a vice and I’ve been manually finishing the process with a nutcracker and nut pick.
Given the slow process of extracting the nut meats, it is fine for snacking but I can’t imagine doing enough to in quantity for baking. I have a huge appreciation for the work my grandfather must have done (unless he had a better method) to have these treats waiting. If anyone has a better way, puh-leeze, leave it in the comments.
Local Hickory Nuts
I was about to write off nuts for the holidays, when I made a discovery at the winter farmer’s market. Hickory nuts. Already shelled. The vendor, Wisconsin Hickory Syrup, specializes in Hickory syrup but has some nuts as a sideline.
They weren’t cheap ($20/lb) but I knew the effort that can go into extracting the nuts. I picked up a 1 lb bag on trial, got it home and YES, they were delicious! A relative of the pecan, they would be perfect for all kinds of baking applications. The vendor isn’t there every week, so the next chance I’ll get for more is December 23.
And if I can get some more, we may have Hickory Pie for Christmas!