English black walnuts' flavor is worth the trouble to shell them

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If you're a nut lover, and goodness knows there are a lot of us, chances are you like your cookies, breads and even salads laden with these healthful kernels. Almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans -- they're all good, whether we chop them up and mix them into our batters, sprinkle them on top of ice cream or nosh on them right out of the bag.

Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette photos
From left: Walnuts in shells, in husks and shelled.
Click photo for larger image.

But the American Eastern Black Walnut? Even someone who's absolutely nuts about nuts might not know anything of this native American species. When it comes to walnuts, Americans have a love affair with the English walnut, Juglans regia, which originated in Persia and was brought into the United States by Spanish missionaries in the 1880s. Its sweet flavor makes it a popular choice for both baking and snacking; English walnuts can even be pickled or candied.

It's homeowners who are most familiar with the black walnut, Juglans nigra, and have a love-hate relationship with it. Love because these straight-stemmed trees, which can tower some 125 feet in the air and are graced with feathery, flat leaves, offer wonderful shade in the summer. Hate because the masses of bright-green, golf ball-sized nuts they produce create an awful mess when they fall in the yard. The strong-smelling juice that leaks from the rich, oily kernel inside the husk will stain hands, clothes, shoes and even tools an indelible brown. (Pioneers used it to dye their cloth.) What's more, the roots of the black walnut produce a toxic chemical called juglone, which prevents anything from growing under or near it.

Yet black walnuts are definitely worth a try if you're willing to try something a little out of the ordinary. Smaller and crunchier than English walnuts, they have a rich, nutty flavor that actually intensifies during the cooking process. Their flavor is so strong and smoky, in fact, that they're generally not recommended for snacking. Instead, black walnuts are used in baked goods or treats such as breads, cookies and candy, or in entrees and salads.

Black walnuts can make wild rice more fragrant or, finely chopped, serve as a crunchy coating for chicken. They're equally delicious toasted in a skillet and then spooned with banana slices and honey on top of French toast. The possibilities are virtually endless.

They're also good for you. Sugar- and cholesterol-free and low in saturated fats, black walnuts also are a source of vitamin E, contain iron and are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, the "good" fats which can lower "bad" cholesterol levels (LDL) without damaging good cholesterol (HDL). They're also high in fiber and contain about 14.1 grams of protein per 100 grams.

Black walnut trees start dropping their nuts about the time kids head off to school, in early fall. Bright green while on the tree, the outer husk quickly darkens and turns black once it hits the ground. The nut inside is encased in a deeply ridged, dark-brown shell that is so hard that when it's pulverized, it can be used to drill oil wells, clean jet engines and to make activated carbon; black walnut shells also are used as an ingredient in dental and cosmetic products.

One reason so few people harvest the nuts that litter their back yards -- other than the fact that squirrels usually get to them first -- is that it takes a great deal of time and effort. Hulled nuts have to be carefully cured in a dry place for at least two weeks before you can shell them, and removing the nut meat from its protective case with a pick is an arduous task at best.

But the bigger turn-off may lie in the fact that hulling black walnuts -- that is, removing the solid, non-splitting outer husk -- is difficult. Ripened black walnut husks are so hard to remove that one preferred technique is to spread the nuts out on a layer of newspaper on the driveway and drive over them with a car. But that can send pieces of shell and nut flying into the air. So a better method is to stomp on them with a pair of old shoes or pound the nuts with a hammer while wearing safety glasses. Or, you could drill a nut-sized hole in a thick plywood board and smash the nut through with a hammer. (The nut goes through while the husk stays behind.) Better still, harvest the nuts while the husks are still green and you can dent it with your finger.

Then there's the mess factor. The nut's juice is so strong that is can stain your fingers at the slightest touch. The answer is to wear heavy gloves or use tongs when handling the unhusked walnut and to wash the unshelled nuts outside with a garden hose before you store them.

The cleaned, unshelled nuts should be cured out of direct sunlight, in a cool and well-ventilated area, for two weeks. To determine if they're ready for shelling and storing, break open a sample nut and scrutinize the kernel; if it breaks crisply, they're ready for cracking with a heavy-duty nutcracker or hammer. Soaking the unshelled nuts in hot water for 24 hours prior to cracking can help soften the shells; just be sure to keep them covered with a moist cloth after draining until you're ready to proceed.


French toast made with walnuts and bananas.
Click photo for larger image.
Wild rice with black walnuts
Click photo for larger image.

One pound of unshelled black walnuts will yield about  3/4 to 1 cup of nut meat. They can be stored for up to four months in a cool, dry location in an airtight container. Whole, shelled nut meats will stay fresh longer than nuts in pieces, so it's best to chop black walnuts just before you use them.

If that all sounds like a bit too much work, not to worry. Even though shelled black walnuts can be amazingly hard to find in sizable quantities, at least one local company -- Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District -- keeps them in stock. Black walnuts also can be purchased online from companies such as Hammons Product Co., a Missouri-based firm that has been selling black walnuts gathered by hand in 12 different states for 60 years (www.black-walnuts.com or 1-888-4bw-nuts.)

But it's going to hurt your pocketbook. While English walnuts can cost as little as $2 a pound in the shell and $5 a pound shelled, black walnuts generally run from $10 to $14 a pound, depending on where you get them. Penn Mac, for instance, charges a reasonable $9.95 a pound, while a 16-ounce bag from Hammons runs $12 and a 20-ounce bag, $14. If it's any consolation, you'll use fewer black walnuts in your recipes because the taste is so intense.

Unlike traditional walnuts, however, which are packaged with meaty, double-lobed halves, recipe-ready black walnuts come bagged in extremely small pieces. Because the shell is so hard, commercially processed nuts are crushed through rollers, making it virtually impossible to produce large pieces; tiny little cavities inside the nut also prevent the meat from being removed in halves.

The result: For every 100 pounds of in-shell nuts, the kernel yield is estimated at less than 10 pounds.


BLACK WALNUT FRENCH TOAST

PG TESTED

  • 2 tablespoons chopped black walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon light butter
  • 1 large ripe banana, sliced
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup fat-free milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 8 white bread slices
  • Vegetable cooking spray
  • 1/4 cup reduced-calorie maple syrup

Place a small skillet over medium-high heat until hot; add chopped black walnuts and cook, stirring constantly, 5 minutes or until toasted. Remove from skillet.

Melt butter in small skillet over medium heat; add banana slices and cook 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Stir in toasted black walnuts and 1/4 cup honey, and remove from heat.

Whisk together eggs and next 3 ingredients in a shallow dish or pie plate. Lightly press bread slices, 1 at a time, into egg mixture, coating both sides of bread. Cook bread, in batches, on a nonstick griddle coated with cooking spray over medium heat 1 to 2 minutes on each side or until done. Repeat procedure, if necessary. Transfer to a serving plate. Serve with banana mixture and syrup.

Serves 4.

-- Southern Living


BLACK WALNUT JIFFY CAKE

PG TESTED

  • 1 cup black walnuts (about 4 ounces)
  • 2 sticks salted butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 5 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and flour a 10- by 4-inch tube pan.

Coarsely chop walnuts. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. On low speed, add flour, salt and walnuts, beating until well combined. Beat in lemon extract and vanilla.

Add one egg at a time, beating well after each addition, and beat batter on high speed 5 minutes. Pour batter into tube pan and bake in middle of oven for 75 minutes. Cool cake in pan on rack for 30 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack and cool completely.

Yields 12 to 16 slices.

-- Gourmet


WILD RICE

PG TESTED

  • 1 cup uncooked wild rice
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 3/4 to 1 cup black walnuts
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt

Cook wild rice according to basic directions.

Melt butter in skillet. Saute black walnuts, onion, mushrooms and green pepper about 3 minutes or until the vegetables soften slightly.

Add wild rice and garlic salt and continue cooking, stirring several times, until wild rice is heated through.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- Hammons Products Co.


BLACK WALNUT-ENCRUSTED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH PEACH SAUCE

PG TESTED

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/3 cup peach preserves
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 tablespoon mustard
  • 1 cup chicken stock, divided
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups black walnuts, chopped fine
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 dash salt and white pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Trim the boneless chicken breast and pound out evenly. Then mix the preserves, honey, mustard and 1/4 cup of the chicken stock in a bowl. In another bowl, take the flour and finely chopped walnuts and mix together.

Then dip the chicken breasts in the peach mixture and drain slightly. Roll the breasts in the walnut mixture and pat down. Place on a cooking sheet and bake in oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

To make the sauce: Put peach mixture in a small pan. Add cornstarch to the remaining chicken stock and mix. Add the stock to the peach mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove chicken from the oven and plate. Take the sauce and pour it over the chicken breast, and serve.

Serves 4.

-- Hammons Products Co.


BLACK WALNUT OATMEAL COOKIES

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cup black walnuts
  • 3 cups oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1 1/2 cup flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix sugars, egg, vanilla and butter together. Stir in remaining ingredients. Spoon onto a cookie sheet and bake until crisp, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Makes 2 to 3 dozen.

-- www.nutsonline.com


Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 26, 2006) Black walnuts are low in saturated fats. This story as originally published on Sept. 21, 2006 Food & Flavor incorrectly described their nutritional value.

Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-761-4670.


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