Posts Tagged ‘walnuts’

Black Walnuts: Tedious but Delicious

September 21, 2009

Foraging will always take more time than preparing store-bought food, but black walnuts may be the most time-consuming wild food I’ve tried.  Finding and collecting them can go quickly, but the prep work (and the eventual yield) give walnuts one of the highest time-to-food value ratios.  For me, it’s worth it, but you might want to try these out on a small scale before you commit to bushels and bushels of walnuts.

Finding Walnuts

I’ll find walnuts while hiking now and then, but when I’m looking to harvest them, I’ll drive through some of the older neighborhoods in town.  Black walnuts are generally despised as shade trees, but a few people still have them in their yards.  You can usually see their driveways and patios littered with the blackened husks, and all but the most paranoid neighbors would love to have you gather a bushel or two of nuts.  I’ve also had good luck asking on local online message boards.  The greasy, round, rotting walnuts can pose a serious safety risk, so a lot of people are grateful to have someone come over and pick them up.

Harvesting Walnuts

Harvesting is easy.  I bring a bucket, bushel, or basket and start picking them up off the ground.  I’ve never tried to pull them off the tree, as they generally fall off when they get ripe.  I try to be selective, and just get the freshly-fallen, completely green fruits.

Preparing Walnuts

This is where it gets difficult.  First, you need to remove the husks.  The walnut juice will stain your clothes and skin, so wear gloves and grubby clothes.

I start with a patio stone and a sturdy pair of boots, grinding each walnut under the heel until the green part falls off and I’m left with the familiar-looking nut.  I’ve read accounts of people spreading them over the driveway and driving over them, but I find the monotonous and violent boot method soothing.  It’s important to get the husks off as soon as possible, as they begin to decompose, which causes the nuts to spoil.  The husks will be really wormy.  The grubs are disgusting but won’t affect the nut.

Once they are husked, the nuts need to be rinsed.  Dump them in a bucket of water.  I’ve read (but not confirmed) that the ones that float are spoiled.  I discard them, but only after making sure I’ve removed all of the husk–every so often, a bit of the especially-bouyant husk will be holding up a nut that would otherwise sink.

After they’ve been husked, I hang them in a mesh basket from the clothesline.  Squirrels will seek them out extremely aggressively, so be sure they’re secure.  Once they’re dry, I put the nuts in the freezer, or in a cool place if the freezer’s full–The nutmeat is really oily, so low temperatures keep it from going rancid.

The nuts need to be broken up to remove the meat, and black walnuts are far harder than the commercial (English) version.  A nutcracker won’t do it, but a hammer will.  A solid strike at the pointy end will split it in two, but they’ll need to be busted into quarters or smaller to get the nuts out.  If available, a bench vise works way better than a hammer.  I put them in so that the seam of the nut is perpendicular to the face of the vise and crank down until it cracks.  I’ll crack nuts until the vise handle starts to hurt my palm, then put it all back in the freezer until I want to get back into it.

When they’re cracked, the last step is getting the meat out.  If you’ve cracked the nuts into the quarters, you should be able to pull out fairly big chunks of nutmeat with a nut pick, awl, or toothpick.  I put all of the meat in a jar and put it in the freezer.

Eating Walnuts

Black walnuts have a much stronger flavor than commerical walnuts, which makes them ideal for baked goods.  I treat them like a precious commodity, having gone through a lot of work to procure them, but they work well in zuchinni bread, carrot muffins, and brownies.  They are better the sooner you use them, so be generous.  I love the flavor, and they are one of the few nuts available that are locally grown, but they are an aquired taste.  My wife tolerates them, and others don’t like them at all.  As I said, try out a few before investing the time.

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Inventory

January 13, 2008

Despite a seriously disturbing warm stretch here in Michigan (high 50s in January), there isn’t a lot of fresh local produce available. I could probably piece together a salad from the thawed-out lettuce left in the garden, and there is still some broccoli, brussel sprouts, and kale holding out through the winter, but that’s about it. The farmer’s market is closed until May, and the grocery store is stocking stuff from Florida and beyond. I do have a freezer full of stuff from last year, though, so I thought I could start with that.

Frozen Vegetables

Tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, swiss chard, green beans–mostly standard stuff. I am not a canner, so it’s all frozen. The peppers I freeze fresh, just cut into chunks. The tomatoes I drop into boiling water so that the skin pops off. The rest of the stuff is boiled for a couple of minutes, then dunked into ice cold water. As I understand it, this halts the enzymatic processes that cause the food to break down in storage.

I also have some frozen purslane, which volunteered in my garden. Purslane, which looks a bit like a miniature, spreading jade plant, has edible stems and leaves with a tangy flavor. It’s not bad fresh out of the ground, and I’m looking forward to cooking with the quart or so that I’ve frozen. Apparently, it gives an oozy quality (“mucilaginous” is a word that comes up often) to soups and stews. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but I’ll find out as soon as I run out of the less terrifying vegetables.

Walnuts

Walnuts are very easy to find wild or semi-wild in this area. I filled two five-gallon pickle buckets with the green, lumpy walnut fruits last September after finding a source on an online message board. The fallen fruit can be a serious hazard–when the husk starts to soften, the walnuts turn into greasy little rollers, and they can take down an incautious pedestrian. My source was glad to get rid of them, and I was glad to have found a supply of local nuts within the city limits.

I’m going to save the details on processing walnuts for walnut season, but after husking, cleaning, squirrel raids, shelling, and picking, I went from 8-10 gallons of fruits to about a quart of nut meats. The nuts are very different from the grocery-store (English) walnut. They are a lot oilier, which gives them a more intense flavor and a tendency to go rancid. I kept my unshelled nuts in our unheated second floor, and keep the cleaned nut meat in the freezer. They make a great addition to pumpkin bread, zucchini muffins, and other baked goods.

Squash

I had horrible luck with squash last summer. Powdery mildew and squash bugs took more than their share of my harvest, so I only had a few to keep through the winter. We keep these on our unheated second level, and I’ve still got one acorn and one spaghetti squash in good condition. The squash held up until about March last year, but they’ll be gone by that time this year.