Black Walnuts

Rich, elegant, and intense, our native American black walnuts and the magnificent tree they rain down from – embodies so many of the qualities that we admire and take pride in.  Just a taste of the rich depth of their flavor makes me feel more grownup and worldly.  If the English walnuts are Hugh Grant then black walnuts are Sean Connery ( What American actor fits? Gregory Peck? Robert Mitchum? ).   Sadly, most Americans have never tasted black walnuts.  The simpler English walnut is all they know.

Wild Black Walnuts, in the husk, out of the husk, in the shell, and shelled.

The black walnut is a tough nut to crack, but it’s well worth it.

Black walnuts’ oily richness is magnificent in pastries and is famously great in or on ice cream.  As far as I’m concerned, black walnuts are by far richest flavored of all nutmeats.  I venture to say that anything with walnuts will taste superior made with wild black walnuts.  Whether it is a simple cookie or a complex cake, black walnuts add remarkable complexity to the flavors.

The recipe for Bourbon Black Walnut Sundae in The Wild Table usually has stains all over the pages of every ones’ copy of the book.  Black walnuts and bourbon really like one another.

From something simple like black walnut ice cream, to the fabulous pasta I had last week made with gorgonzola cream sauce and toasted black walnuts – you can’t go wrong.  .  I’m very partial to a pile of black walnuts on every cheese plate nestled near the blue cheese. I TRY to have a little pile of them on a nice cheese plate sitting next to the blue cheese, but I always nibble away the pile first.

Black walnuts are notoriously difficult to crack.  Because of the iron tough shells and the brittle labyrinth of the nut’s interior, they can come out only in pieces.   If they weren’t such a colossal horror to shell, the food world would have wild black walnuts starring in dishes and desserts from stem to stern.  But they ARE extremely difficult to shell and this fact has relegated them to obscurity in current times.  Many of our more patient Grandparents however, revere them for the extraordinary culinary treasures they are.
squirrel with a walnut

If you’re drying your hulled walnuts outside, be prepared for some company.

Instructions

You’ll need good gloves, a hammer, ratty clothes, and a hard surface that you don’t care about getting stained.  There are three basic steps: 1- Removing the hull from the nut; 2- drying the walnuts; and 3- shelling out the nutmeat.

Hulling is a ridiculous dance.  The hull of a ripe black walnut will have a green-gold color and have a little “give”. You have to remove the hull which seamlessly covers the nut.  Wearing strong old boots, step on the nut & roll it around forcefully until the hull starts to come off. With gloves on, peel off any remaining hull.  Drying the nuts is a cakewalk. Put them in trays or boxes about three to four nuts deep.  You could hang them in a strong mesh bag also. Hide them somewhere protected from squirrels and moisture. After about three or four weeks, a nut meat should snap.

Shelling

Many people toss the nuts on their driveway and drive over them repeatedly.  Be careful, they can become projectiles. Yes, they are that tough.  My father’s method is slower but is still my favorite. Either find a board with a knot hole and knock out the knot to made a hole, or drill a nut sized hole in a ¾-1 inch thick board.  Put the nut in the hole, club it with a heavy hammer, lift the board leaving the broken nut behind and repeat this process. The hole keeps the nut stationary.  This is mighty important if you value your eyes, or any object you don’t want damaged by a walnut projectile.You’ll end up with a nice heap of broken black walnuts to pick through. The balance of the work you can do in front of a good TV show.  Take great care to sort out any shell pieces.

green walnuts

These immature “green” Black Walnuts are suitable for making nocino or pickling.

Either freeze or refrigerate your black walnuts.  The rich oils can turn rancid in warm weather.   After you worked hard for your pile of shelled black walnuts you certainly want to preserve them and the stability of their trademark oils. Use within the year.  Trust me, this will be easy to do.

Black Walnut Cake

3 cups black walnut pieces
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
5 eggs
½ cup flour
2 T bourbon ( or booze of choice)
Powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350.   Sprinkle all the black walnuts and bake for 8-10 minutes. Set a timer!!! Remove from oven and cool. After they’ve cooled, put nuts into a food processor and pulse until they’re a fine meal/powder. Remove from processor.
Cake Pan- Use a 9” round pan, line with parchment and butter the paper lightly.

In the food processor ( you don’t need to wash it ), beat the remaining room temperature butter until quite fluffy. Beat the eggs in one at a time. After all eggs are in, beat in the flour.  After this is blended, add the ground nuts and the booze. Bourbon, rum, brandy or a nice liquor of your choice are all OK.

Put the batter in the parchment lined pan and bake for one half hour.  Test with a toothpick to make sure it’s not gooey inside.  Cool, remove from the pan.

After gently removing the parchment paper, sprinkle with powdered sugar shaken through a fine sieve

 

Elderberries: The Mystery of Ripeness

Elderberries are one of the true crown jewels of wild foods.  Not so very long ago, elderberries were a food that I could use to separate out the more adventurous, open-minded chefs with.  If the chefs were worth their salt, they could mess about with the elderberries I provided and quickly recognize the complexity great depth of elderberries’ flavor. The port-like and cassis flavors would just astound them.

Even now, many chefs don’t have the opportunity or imagination to really go wild with this remarkable fruit.  After all, elderberries are not impressive if just tasted fresh from a cluster.  It takes the heat of cooking and a touch of sweetness to release their magic.

Clusters of ripening elderberries

Clusters of ripening wild elderberries

As I began today to pick a few of the early ripening clusters here in Napa, I realized that there may be an important reason they’re not recognized as the kitchen treasure they are.   Elderberries HAVE to be picked when they are fully ripe, yet this isn’t at all easy for most people to figure out.  Just because elderberry cluster is a gorgeous shade of deep purple doesn’t mean than the interior of the berry is fully ripe.

Most fruiting plants, erupt in flowers, go about the business of pollination and march onto the ripening of all the fruit they’re bearing.  Generally this happens in a rather unified way.  Apples, plums and so on get ripe en masse on a tree.  Blackberries, mulberries and other berries may ripen over a few marvelous weeks.  Elder trees are most peculiar however.  Elderflowers will emerge in their lace-like beauty in the spring, be pollinated and then their berries form up as you’d expect.   Those first early formed berries are what I’m picking through now.  YET, the elder tree will just continue to produce flowers here and there on the tree for months after that first major wave of flowers.  I’ve managed to gather blooming elderflowers for ice cream or panna cotta cravings as late as September!  What does this matter?  Well, this months’ long summer carousel of long flowering elder tree behavior leaves you facing a tree that is laden with beautiful purple clusters of berries that can as much as three months different in ripeness.   The berries may all look purple on the outside but only certain clusters are ready to harvest.  To the vast majority of folks picking elderberries, they all look ripe because the berries all look plump, perky and purple.  The outer layer can be pretty deceptive, however.

Elderberries  and their juice - one ripe with deep purple juice, the other not quite ripe with pale, watery juice

The juice of ripe elderberries is deep in color, while that of unripe berries is pale and watery.

Willy nilly elderberry harvesting is a big mistake.  I know, I’ve learned the hard way.  Even after I was fully aware of the amazing variation of berry ripeness on the same tree, I remember picking and thinking “Hey I’m making a savory game sauce.  I don’t want them to be too ripe and sweet.”  I was wrong.  The sauce was thin in flavor and lacked that port-like grape/berry flavor that is the great hallmark of elderberries.

So here’s the deal.  There is no real shortcut to this.  Ripe elderberries have a nice purple hue to the juice as well as the skin. You’ll see the color of juice against your fingertips.  The juice in unripe berries is pale and watery.  As you grab a cluster, you have to squish a berry and look at the juice.  This is definitely going to slow you down, but it’s worth every extra second.  Once you get used to it, you can zip along with a squish and cut sort of rhythm.

Harvesting and cleaning berries:

Through this entire ripeness lecture, I’ve completely failed to mention the most obvious issue of all- getting clean berries off the actual elder tree.  Because I harvest so many, I have settled on an efficient method years ago.  This skips the loving hand labor that many folks relish, but it results in easy efficient cleaning.  After finding a ripe cluster, I snip it off with scissors close to the base of the raceme. This is where are main stem separates out into the many little stems that hold the berries.  I just harvest away taking whole buckets of these berry clusters home.  I put these into bags and place them immediately into the freezer.  After these are all frozen, take a bag out and drop it repeatedly onto a hard surface.  Take a colander with large holes, or a plastic market basket with good size holes and pour the now nicely broken elderberry stem mixture into it.  Put down a roasting pan or a plastic storage container and shake the colander/basket over it.  The whole berries will fall through the holes leaving most of the stems behind.  If you want to go another step in cleaning the berries, place an old towel on a big cookies sheet or better yet, a section of curved drain pipe.  I’ve even put a towel over the back of a lounge chair, placed a big container on the seat, draped the towel over the back of the chair and tucked the bottom of towel into the container.  Whether it’s the back of a lounge chair or a cookie sheet, arrange the towel-covered surface at an ramp-like angle.  Put a bowl or large container at the base of this ramp you’ve just created. Pour the berries slowly down the elevated part of this makeshift ramp.  The odd bits of stem or bad berries will stick to the towel leaving the ripe round berries to round merrily into your receiving bowl.   These clean berries are ready to be used, or returned to the freezer for future use.

Frozen ripe elderberries

Freezing the ripe elderberries is part of the cleaning process.

For those who wish to suffer more for fresh berries, there’s nothing like an old fashioned fat comb or big Afro pick.  You can sit and comb the fresh berries off the stems rather easily this way.    What I DON’T  like about this method is that the skin of really ripe berries is often torn open in the process.  The delicate berry skin is often ripped in various parts when the comb pulls the berry off the stem.  This can cause a significant loss of juice.   Elderberry juice is what it’s all about for me.  Whether you’re making jelly, sauce, wine or whatever- you want every drop of that precious juice.

Whichever harvest and cleaning method you put to work, do watch carefully for genuine ripeness.   Once you develop an eye, taste and the enviable passion for elderberries, you’ll find that it can be quite easy to gather significant amounts.  Since more than you probably really need is out there, slow down, check the juice color and fill your buckets with the most luscious and deepest flavored berries of all.   True ripeness makes all the difference imaginable.