Black walnuts are another one of those local delicacies which have been largely ignored, or even avoided in the belief that they are inedible. But once I learned that they are indeed edible, and that there are lots of them growing in my own neighbourhood, I wanted some. We have none on our property, but a friend kindly offered me some of her harvest, and I eagerly accepted. Thank you Brenda. And here they are, fresh off the tree, in October.
And so began my black walnut project.
1. Peel. This is fairly simple. Just score the nut around the equator with a sharp knife and twist off the outer layers. It is essential to wear impermeable gloves to protect your hands from the black goo underneath which stains terribly. I found it took two weeks for the stain to wear off my one unprotected hand.
2. Wash. You can swirl them in buckets of water, a few times, still wearing the gloves, but we used a pressure washer and it did a super job in just a few seconds.
3. Dry. Too large for my dehydrator, I put them in the oven at 175 degrees F for a few hours. Because they are so large and I wanted to do it slowly, I turned off the oven a few times, and extended the drying period to about 8 hours. When they felt lighter, I figured (hoped) they were ready. The wonderful scent peculiar to this kind of nut was my first experience with their distinctive, pungent flavour.
4. Set aside to age, for at least three months, in a cool, dry place.
5. Shell. This is by far the most daunting of all the tasks. They are the hardest nut to crack that I have ever come came across, and I wasn’t too sure if I would be able to continue with this project. We did a few using a vise, but that required more strength than I possess, and this was my project I wanted to do on my own. So finally, I wrapped one at a time in a tea towel, and took a mallet to them on the basement floor. A rock would also work, as you need a really hard surface beneath. I would not recommend doing it on your furniture or kitchen counter. The towel was supposedly to protect bits of shell from flying into my eyes, but with my gentle approach that was not a problem. The tea towel did help to hold the nut in place while I cajoled it open. It took only a few not very powerful taps with the mallet until I felt the shells collapse. After the first few, I was able to gage the force required to break it into a two or three pieces but not so much that the entire nut was in smithereens.
If all this seems like a lot of effort, take note that these nuts have such a strong flavour that only a few are needed in any recipe. It is difficult to describe a flavour, but to me these walnuts are to the more common ones what pumpernickel is to white bread. I will soon be publishing some of the recipes I have come up with to make the best use I can of these precious nuts.