Black walnuts taste like winter, especially if you had a rural childhood in the South. Black walnuts were an inexpensive, if time-consuming, way to dress up baked goods, and many people remember picking up the green-hulled nuts and putting them down in the driveway to hull.
The real work, though, comes in getting them out of the actual shell. But the payoff came in dishes like walnut cake or pie, or even ice cream, with its intense, dark, almost bitter flavor.
It’s a taste that speaks of home and history. Now, with local flavors once considered “poverty foods” increasingly on the menu at even white tablecloth restaurants, the lowly black walnut is worth adding to your holiday menu.
And perhaps in some surprising ways, such as savory dishes.
Chef Mark Richardson of Dudley’s on Short loves the taste of black walnuts, which he calls “the truffle of nuts.”
He’s used them in a scallop dish, with butternut squash puree dressed with a black walnut vinaigrette that he makes by steeping the nuts in vinegar then reducing it. He combines the reduced vinegar with a little bit of olive oil.
“I don’t want to manipulate the nut too much,” he said. “They pack a lot of punch for the size they are.”
Richardson thinks they would be “phenomenal in a stuffing” for Thanksgiving, imparting a nice taste and texture.
“I just think they are unique, unlike any other nut. They’ve got character and depth. Really earthy. The taste and the smell are similar and yet different. The smell is very fragrant but the flavor has more layers and changes as you eat them with sweet or savory tastes.”
One of his favorite ways to enjoy the flavor: “I like it in ice cream a lot. It’s great,” he said.
In fact, one reason Richardson likes working with black walnuts is because they remind him of his late grandfather, who had a black walnut tree on his property in Pikeville.
They didn’t eat them much, he said, but they threw them at each other a lot. And it’s the memory of the smell of hurling a green walnut, or a slightly mushy brown one, that gets him.
“That smell reminds me of childhood and things like that,” he said.
That’s a common sense memory, said Brian Hammons, president of Hammons Products, the Stockton, Mo., company is the biggest black walnut processors and buys walnuts from Kentucky. The company buys about 23 million pounds of black walnuts in the hull annually, including millions from Kentucky. By the time they are hulled and shelled, they are left with about 1.6 million pounds nut meat, which they sell to stores, restaurants and other nut companies.
“We’re seeing the food trends move in the direction that black walnuts really fit into,” Hammons said. “It is a food that has a great heritage in rural areas. People recall picking up nuts, grandma making a cake with them. And many people still have those roots even if they live in cities now. Others are interested in unique, wild and local foods and that all fits in with black walnut, too.”
And the bold, robust, earthy flavor is unique, he said. “Baking, that’s the traditional use, and that’s what most of the recipes are, but there are some really creative chefs working with black walnuts now,” Hammons said. “They are including them in salads, sauces, main dishes, vegetables … I’m always amazed at things chefs come up with.”
Jeff Stringer, University of Kentucky forestry extension professor, said that the Eastern black walnut, juglans nigra, is a native tree to Kentucky and usually grows wild. Many of the nuts collected here and sold to processors do wind up in ice cream, he said.
But he pointed out that the hulls also are a useful commodity, used for medicinal purposes, for dyes and colorings, and as a grinding agent for polishing everything from dentures to the flame on the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
John Strang, University of Kentucky horticulture specialist in fruits and vegetables, said black walnuts definitely have a following.
“If you’re brought up with black walnuts, you like that flavor,” Strang said. But many people aren’t willing to go through all the work of cracking the tough shells and picking out the nutmeat.
Tips on black walnuts
▪ For less intense flavor, harvest them when they first come off the tree. UK horticulture professor John Strang said the flavor is imparted from the hull, so the longer you wait, the stronger they will taste.
▪ Freeze them in a bottle or sturdy container, not in plastic bags, which aren’t completely impermeable.
▪ If you like cracking them yourself, nutgrowers.org recommends several nut crackers especially for black walnuts, including Hunts and Mr. Hickory, made by Kentuckian Fred Blankenship.
▪ Want to collect and sell walnuts next year? UK Cooperative Extension Service has a list of buyers around the state; this year’s buying season has ended.
▪ Want to buy black walnuts? Hammons, black-walnuts.com, will sell and ship directly to consumers. Hammons nuts also are available at Kroger, Sam’s Club, and Costco in Kentucky, usually in the produce section. Also available under the Diamond and Fischer labels.
▪ Want to add a little black walnut flavor to holiday cocktails? Try nocino, a liqueur made from walnuts.
Black Walnut Sweet Potato Casserole
5 large sweet potatoes, baked until tender
1/4 cup butter
2 tablespoon brown sugar
2/3 cup orange juice
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup marshmallow creme
1/3 cup flour
1/4 cup uncooked old-fashioned oats
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/4 cup black walnuts, chopped
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut baked sweet potatoes in half, scrape out pulp from skins into a large bowl. Add all ingredients and combine well with electric mixer. Pour into a buttered 1 1/2 quart baking dish. (Sweet potato mixture can be made the day ahead and refrigerated before topping and baking.) Cover with topping, bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until potatoes are bubbly and topping is browned and toasty.
To make topping: Mix dry ingredients and cut in butter until crumbs form. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture. (Sweet potato mixture also can be made ahead and refrigerated.)
Black Walnut Pesto
3/4 cup black walnuts
15 fresh basil leaves
3-4 cloves of garlic or to taste
1 pound pasta of your choice, cooked according to package directions
Salt and pepper
Drop of olive oil
1/4 cup butter
In a food processor, combine black walnuts, basil leaves and garlic. Pulse until well blended to create pesto mixture. Melt butter in skillet; add pesto mixture and olive oil. Heat until well blended, then stir in the cooked pasta. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.