So: black walnuts, otherwise known as the nut I was tasked with creating recipes around for this month’s Feast magazine: let’s talk about them. When I was asked to do a feature article on black walnuts, I was obviously elated: me? write a feature? Yes, please: I would love that. I am honored. I am utterly geeked out by your request yes I will do it. But then it dawned on me: black walnuts?
I know nothing about black walnuts.
Now, you could argue here that my entire columnist life is centered around ingredients I largely know nothing about until I work with them for the magazine, but that’s 1 recipe: this time, they were asking for a full writeup and 6-7 recipes. Add to that the direction to balance sweet to savory and make it all winter-centric, and you get one nervous writer.
Oh, and did I mention that the only thing I really knew about black walnuts was how much my mom can’t stand them? I don’t know why I even know that: I don’t think black walnuts so much as crossed the threshold in my childhood home, but for whatever reason, I knew my mother thought they were the most repulsive thing she had ever tasted. All I know is that anytime I have mentioned the black walnut in the past, it has been in passing, probably in the sentence “and I almost picked up black walnuts but then I realized they weren’t ‘normal’ walnuts so iI grabbed the regular ones.” To which she would promptly interrupt me at the “black wal-” interval and exclaim “OH MY GOODNESS BUT YOU DIDN’T GET THEM, RIGHT? OH SHANNON, LET ME JUST TELL YOU; BLACK WALNUTS ARE TERRIBLE. THEY TASTE LIKE MOLD AND MILDEW AND THE SMELL! OH DEAR SWEET LORD THE SMELL…” and this would go on for roughly 7 eons.
So I accepted the assignment. Natch. Because who wants to try making presumably mildewy-smelling, acrid, aggressively-flavored nuts her own flesh and blood loathes palatable to the general public by way of many sweet and savory recipes? This girl.
If anyone in St. Louis cared what I thought about food (I’m sure some may care, but I mean if I was a local chef or food critic, aka someone who is trained), this story would have been written differently. For although it is about the facts and figures of the black walnut – about truly how flexible it can be in recipes – it is actually a story of redemption. It is the story of a girl who – although she is not picky – really didn’t think she’d like the black walnut at first, much less know how to treat it. And yet, she emerged from a week of kitchen trials triumphant, because not only were the recipes completely righteous, but she had discovered a love for an ingredient she never knew.
Are black walnuts for everyone? Certainly not. Listen to any older person growing up in a state which has black walnut trees, and you’ll hear nostalgic stories of cracking these bad boys around the fire, and how much the taste of black walnut ice cream reminds them of their childhood. Younger generations seem to have less exposure to them, at least in more urbanized areas: we just don’t understand, really, what they are. When I was in elementary school, the perimeter of our playground and parking lot was lined with trees which, at certain times of the year, pelted the ground with waterlogged-looking tennis ball things. No one wanted to touch them, and none of us knew what they were. As it turns out, I spent Kindergarten through 6th grade surrounded – literally – by black walnuts. I had no idea. So it’s not like the trees only exist in rural areas, because my school was smack in the middle of St. Louis.
If you live where I live, chances are, these little guys are all around you, probably laying nestled in the ground, grossing kids out on the daily. Don’t discount them because of what you’ve heard. Does my mom, who was in town and in my kitchen during my recipe testing, still hate them? Sadly (but unsurprisingly), yes. But I don’t, thus proving that you just never know until you try it (or until you’ve had it in the right recipe for you) if you’ll like something.
I could talk about these for hours, but I won’t: read the article, because for once in my life, I summarized how strange and beautiful these things are while sticking to a word count. And I made you tons of recipes, if you’re interested in trying them, and I encourage you to: there are some sweet ones and some savory ones, and I can truly say I loved all of them. Still apprehensive? Allow me to suggest a recipe based on your food personality/attitude towards black walnuts:
- I Am [Understandably] Apprehensive: you haven’t had a black walnut before, you’ve heard bad things…really bad things. Try the black walnut + banana cake, because it’s the most gently flavored of the bunch, in terms of black walnuts. Think of it as a standard banana bundt cake, but with a shadowy little twist to it.
- I Am Willing to Experiment – To a Point: You want to branch out a little bit, but let’s not get crazy about it, right? The cherry-swirled black walnut ice cream is great for that. It’s a classic flavor that at some point you may have even had, and the cherry swirl goes a long way to temper the black walnut’s aggressive flavor, and the sweet cream smooths everything out.
- I Don’t Want to Put Lots of Time Into Something I May Hate: Cool with me, because the black walnut + honeyed blue cheese compound butter takes maybe 2 minutes to put together, with basically no labor involved. It’s medium-assertive in terms of walnuts, because it’s paired with equally assertive Maytag and toned down with honey. Since it’s butter, you can use it…or not. I like it on big, fat crusty hearth breads and as a steak butter. Try it on a hearty dark bread like pumpernickel and be prepared to fall in love. Also good on whole grain, rye, and pumpernickel bagels. I know this personally. The same goes for the sugared walnuts: they’re intended to top my winter wild rice salad, but they’re totally snackable on their own, and they take 20 minutes total, most of that oven time. If you’re looking for something more sweet than savory, try this recipe: I bet you’ll be surprised when you taste the finished product how many things you could think to use them in or on.
- I Am Brave, But I Like Classic and Traditional: Great! I like that you’re brave and willing to try something new, because my black walnut + parsley pesto is solidly delicious, and i have one professional photographer, one assistant, and one intern who would confirm this. One of the dishes you’ll see photographed is this one, and it is a dramatic and elegant way to incorporate black walnuts into your life, but in a very traditional way. What you see in the photo is simply thin spaghetti draped in the warmed pesto and then topped with these slow-roasted tomatoes, a smattering of toasted pine nuts, and some shaved Parmesan cheese. Mother Nature is blessing us with freezing rain and generalized gloom today, and all I can think about is making this pasta. Soul-warming, to be sure. One of my favorites of the bunch.
- I Like Cookies and I Don’t Mind If They’re Weird: Me too! And I like my cookies as dramatic as I like everything else, and if you do too, the chocolate espresso black walnut wafers may be your new favorite thing. Dark chocolate really pairs wonderfully with the intensity and “haunted forest” nature of the black walnut, and the espresso takes its own bitterness and marries it to that of the black walnut, which creates this semi-magical, very mysterious wafer cookie that’s crazy yet familiar. Made even more weird, perhaps, by their ability to stay in perfectly round, identical circles. There’s something about their symmetry in shape and variance in nut pattern that I really, really love.
- Give Me All You’ve Got: You are a person after my own heart, and I will do just that. Last but not at all least is my winter wild rice salad with citrus-black walnut dressing. I think when I made this I was slightly apprehensive about people going for this one because of a few reasons. Black walnuts are used in two ways here: broken down to a paste to make a creamy dressing, and as one of the ingredients in the salad in the form of the sugared black walnuts. That, my friends, is a lot of black walnut flavor. Also, wild rice salads are kind of from the seventies: you don’t see them that much, so it’s not in everyone’s wheelhouse. Does it work? Oh…it works. It SO works, and the end result is a salad you never knew you loved. It’s got all the things you love about winter: sweet oranges, grapes, dried figs, goat cheese, and a little scallion, all folded into some wild rice and the sugared walnuts I mentioned, and topped with a dressing custom-made for this. When I saw via their Instagram a few weeks ago that they had chosen this salad to make during the February edition of Feast TV, I was scared. I knew it was good, but people…black walnuts. Would it be too much to take? I’m not a restaurant chef, so I don’t have a staff to try things out on first; I have to rely on my own (hopefully objective) judgement. Thankfully, my own photo shoot was going on here for the dishes you see pictured, so I had something to keep my mind distracted. Imagine my complete and utter relief when iIheard that the whole crew not only liked the dish after it was prepared, but loved it. Not a speck was left, from what I hear. They’re calling it a “must-make” recipe and I am about to faint because I am over the moon about that. I agree: it is a must-make. It’s terribly good, and different from what you may be used to seeing. I’m just happy other people like it. I don’t doubt my recipes, truly, but I think I just hate to feel like anyone would be disappointed; I get nervous when I know one of you is making something of mine, too.
And if you are in a state of total swoon over the photographs? Those are courtesy of Jennifer Silverberg, who also did my head shots and who does the photography for – among other things – my monthly column. She’s amazing, but I doubt I need to tell you that. Just get lost in these photos. Better yet, follow her on Instagram; I promise you won’t be disappointed. She makes me look good, and I think we make a good team. I hope I get more assignments of this magnitude because I love writing, but getting to hang out with Jennifer and her crew and watch actual magic happen? Total bonus. I have a great time with her. Here’s a few outtakes from the day:
Yes: there was a hammer involved.
Lesson learned: I need to take more time to style my food in the way that showcases it. I’m not talking about balancing anything on a glass of milk with blurry flowers and china in the background, but just making more an effort to bring its true beauty out. Because, this:
Did you pick a recipe to make yet? No matter what your personality, check out all the recipes over on Feast: I put my heart and soul into them and I really gave this project my all. I hope one of them inspires you to give black walnuts a chance (or maybe a second chance, unless your my mom, in which case, no pressure) on your table sometime. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have about them in the meantime, if there’s something you’re unsure about: I know more about them now than most normal people do, I think. We have easy access to them here in the Midwest: if you’re in other parts of the country or world, you may not see them often. Whole Foods typically has them, and Trader Joe’s may as well. In the St. Louis area, you can always find them at Schnucks and Dierbergs, and possibly lots of other places. If you don’t see them by you, guess what: you can order them. If you watch this months’ Feast TV, in addition to watching my winter wild rice salad come to life, you’ll also get a rare glimpse inside Hammons Products Company – the largest black walnut processor in the world – located right here in Missouri. You need black walnuts? They have black walnuts, and you can order your supply in their online Nut Emporium. You can get the pieces (I would recommend this) or the in-shell variety, along with loads of other black-walnut related things.
Whew: so thank goodness I don’t have any word counts to adhere to over here. The moral of my story is this: give black walnuts a chance. Don’t dismiss them as gross. Treat them right. Head over to Feast’s website and check out everything in this months’ issue. The details:
- Feast TV Preview (the entire thing will be available soon)
- Feast Magazine February 2014 online issue (which is the only way you truly get to see how stunningly laid-out it is)
- Black Walnuts, Online Feature + Slide Show (and recipes)
I’ve linked to the individual recipes up above, and you can find them all housed in the online article I directed you to.
Some of you may be, well, wondering how so many words fit in my brain at once. Others may be wondering if my regular column is in here. Well, it is, and I’m excited about that too this month. We’ll talk about that next post, and I’m not going to tell you what I did, but if you go to Feast’s website and head to the Mystery Shopper section, you’ll find out. Or, even better, flip through the magazine.