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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 09:06 pm

Taste the wild side of walnuts


They’re wild. Their flavor is intense and unique. They’re local – native to the Midwestern and Eastern United States. And they’re darned hard to get out of their shells.

Black walnuts (juglans nigra) may be related to their European cousin, the English, or Persian walnut (juglans regia), but they taste very different: Different in flavor, but also in intensity. English walnuts are milder, with a mellow flavor that can be showcased, but that can also play a supporting role. Black walnuts, however, are pretty much always the star wherever they appear – or at the very least, the costar.

One reason that black walnuts’ flavor is stronger is that they are almost exclusively harvested in the wild, unlike English walnuts, which are primarily cultivated. Black walnuts are grown commercially, but only for their beautiful wood; cultivated trees’ closer proximity than in the wild inhibits nut production.

English walnuts’ adaptability to cultivation has made them much more readily available to consumers. The other factor is that black walnut shells are much thicker and harder – in fact, the ground shells are used industrially as an eco-friendly abrasive for everything from polishing dentures, metals and fiberglass to skin-care exfoliates. It’s also used as a filler for dynamite!

Those hard shells ensure that there’s a fair amount of work involved in getting to the tasty nuts. The outer green hull isn’t easily removed, either. The most popular and efficient method seems to be tying them in a gunnysack, then repeatedly running over them with a car.

The black walnut epicenter is Stockton, Mo., where the Hammon family has been commercially processing and distributing them since 1946; today theirs is the only such company in the United States.

“My great-grandfather, Ralph, had a good black walnut cracker in his grocery store,” David Hammon tells me. “Word got around, and pretty soon everybody was bringing in black walnuts to the store. Back then we processed 100,000 lbs. a year; now we do that much every day.” Advanced technology has helped, but it’s still not easy; the basic method of removing the hulls, even commercially, remains based on the tire principal.

Even so, Hammon says “We haven’t really changed the way we do business for 60-plus years.” That’s primarily because of how Hammons procures the nuts. Folks gather them in the wild – maybe a backyard, or a nearby forest – and bring them to processing centers in 16 states. The nearest – and only – Illinois center is in Pleasant Hill, south of Quincy. Some do it on their own, perhaps for extra money for the holidays. Lately, Hammon says, there’s been an influx of people who’ve lost jobs and are making supplemental income by gathering black walnuts in the wild. Hammons also has fundraising programs for youth, church and civic groups.

Because they’re gathered in the wild, black walnuts are free from pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Hammon even says that black walnuts get a range of flavor due to differences in the soil in which the trees are grown, much as wine grapes do.

“We’re the only ones doing this,” laughes Hammon. “Our biggest competition is the squirrels!”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Black walnut praline pork chops

Black walnuts are available from at least two vendors at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market, completely shelled as well as with pre-cracked shells. Hammons Black Walnuts are available at several local grocery stores. 

  • 4 pork chops, approximately 1/2 – 1-inch thick
  • 1/4 c. kosher or sea salt
  • 1 qt. cold water
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 T. bacon fat or oil
  • 2 apples, such as Jonathan or Granny Smith, OR substitute 2-3 firm but ripe pears
  • 1 T. cider vinegar or more, optional
  • 1/2 c. black walnuts
  • 1/2 - 1/3 c. dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper, or to taste, optional
  • 1 T. Dijon or stone-ground mustard
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine the salt and water in a one-gallon resealable plastic bag. Squish with your hands until the salt is completely dissolved. Add the pork chops, squeeze out as much water as possible, and let the chops brine, refrigerated, for at least four hours and up to 24. Remove from the refrigerator 2-3 hours before cooking to let them come to room temperature.

While the chops are brining, core and dice the apples or pears; peeling them is optional. If doing this more than a few minutes before beginning to cook the chops, toss them with the vinegar to keep them from browning. You may wish to do this anyway if you’d like a more sweet/sour sauce. The larger amount of sugar, of course, makes the sauce sweeter.

Pat the pork chops completely dry with a lint-free towel, then sprinkle with pepper to taste. Heat the fat/oil over medium high heat in a skillet large enough to hold the chops in one layer without crowding. When it’s hot but not smoking, add the chops and sear on both sides until they’re well browned.

Remove the chops from the skillet and pour off any excess fat. Turn the heat to medium, return the skillet to the stove, then add the black walnuts to the skillet and sauté, stirring constantly for 3-4 minutes or until they are lightly toasted. Remove a scant half of the nuts from the skillet and reserve. Add the remaining ingredients, whisking to combine, then return the pork chops to the pan and cook at a low simmer until the meat is done. The time depends on the thickness of the chops: thinner ones should take 3-4 minutes, thicker ones a few minutes longer. Remove them to a platter and cover to keep warm. Bring the sauce to a full boil and reduce until it’s slightly thickened. Pour the sauce over the chops and sprinkle with the reserved nuts. Serves 4.

Apple Plenty cake

  • 3 eggs
  • 11/2 cups neutral vegetable oil, such as canola
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 4 c. peeled, cored and chopped apples
  • 1 c. black walnuts, lightly toasted if desired
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 c. dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 c. milk
  • 1/2 c. unsalted butter
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • confectioner’s sugar for garnish, optional
Mix eggs, oil and sugar; blend well. Sift flour, salt and baking soda together; add to egg mixture. Add apples, black walnuts and vanilla. Pour batter into greased tube or bundt pan. Bake at 350º for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

For the glaze:
Combine the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Continue to cook at a slow boil for 2 ½ minutes. While cake is still hot and in the pan, pour glaze evenly over it. Cool cake completely before removing from pan. Sift lightly with confectioner’s sugar before serving if desired.

Black walnut shortbread cookies (dipped in chocolate)
  • 3/4 c. black walnuts
  • 1 c. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 c. LOOSELY packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. kosher or sea salt
  • 2 ¼ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Approximately 8 oz. good quality bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (if dipping)
Toast the black walnuts in a 350º-degree oven in a single layer until very lightly browned and fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Grind the nuts in a nut grinder or food processor and measure ½ c. Reserve any excess ground nuts for another use.

Preheat the oven to 325º. Combine the ground nuts, butter, brown sugar, vanilla, salt and flour until a stiff dough is formed. Line a 9-inch x 13-inch baking pan, preferably one with squared off edges, with parchment paper. Pat the dough evenly into the pan. Cut the dough with a sharp knife lengthwise in half and then crosswise in fourths. Cut each rectangle diagonally into triangles. You should have 16 triangles. Prick each triangle decoratively with a fork.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until set. Do not allow to get too brown. Immediately run a knife along the cut marks and the edges of the pan. Cool completely. Remove the shortbread triangles from the pan.

If dipping the shortbread triangles in chocolate: Place the chocolate in a small, deep bowl/container such as a coffee mug. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the microwave over low to medium power (depending on your microwave). Microwave for 2-3 minutes. Uncover the chocolate and stir. Recover the container with plastic wrap and repeat JUST until the chocolate is melted. There may still be small lumps when you remove the chocolate from the microwave, but stir and they may dissolve. Dip one (or more) points of the shortbread triangles into the chocolate and place on a sheet of parchment paper to firm.

Alternatively, you could put the melted chocolate into a plastic bag, cut off a tiny corner and drizzle the chocolate decoratively over the shortbreads.

Makes 16 triangles.

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