feast magazine, february 2014 [part one]: black walnuts.

black walnuts.

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.

black walnuts.

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.

black walnuts.

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.

black walnuts.

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:

black walnuts.

black walnuts.

black walnuts.

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:

black walnuts.

black walnuts.

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:

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.

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29 Comments on "feast magazine, february 2014 [part one]: black walnuts."

  1. Brianne says:

    I read the magazine online this morning. Your recipes are freaking amazing!!! I am making Kevin those cookies that you’re going to talk about in your next post. He loves all the things in them; they’ll probably be his favorite. I’ve seen Maine black walnuts in our grocery store, and I’d love to play with them. I like your chocolate-espresso cookie recipe a lot. Slice and bakes are way fun. It’s also way fun to read you being a profesh in print. I love your column, and congratulations on the beautiful feature!!!

    • shannon says:

      oh my goodness i’m so happy you liked the recipes! thank you! I took a lot of research and think time to come up with them, and i hope they appeal to lots of people. Those cookies are seriously one of my favorite recipes to come out of my work: i’ll make them over and over again, for sure, if only for myself. It’s interesting to see how much black walnuts do NOT leave their territory: states that don’t grow them don’t tend to sell them in stores, either, so i guess we’re the lucky ones. :) if you make these, i’d love to hear what you and kevin think of them – slice and bakes are way fun (and the dough freezes really well, so some now, some later).

  2. Deb says:

    Your mom’s aversion to black walnuts reminds me of my mom’s hatred of avocados. Her grandmother had several trees which led to way too many ripe avocados. She won’t eat them ever! Black walnuts sound mighty fine to me. And if ice cream and cookies are involved, well I’d just need a serving or two to make my determination! Bravo on the Feast feature, well done!

    • shannon says:

      thank you, Deb! aw, how do people hate avocados?!? or i guess there are lots of ways to hate them; i can see texturally (or in your mom’s case, a barrage of overripe ones around) how they could garner dislike. people sometimes really have bad childhood associations they just can’t shake.

  3. Congratulations on your feature! I don’t think I’ve ever tried a black walnut, but now I’m intrigued. That salad is gorgeous, and the pesto sounds delicious…

    (I’m also in awe of anyone writing anything about food within a very specific word count. Impressive!)

    • shannon says:

      allison, i hadn’t tried one either until this feature (obviously my mom didn’t keep them in the house considering her aversion to them). :) thank you so much!

      honestly, working for a publication like Feast has really made me hone my word count skills: trying to pare down writing to fit a word count is HARD, and it took me a little while to get the hang of it, because it involves not only spilling your thoughts in a creative way (hard enough) but to then take those thoughts and distill them into a tightly-written yet still informative and well-worded article. I’m hoping practice makes perfect, b/c right now, i’m getting lots of practice. :)

  4. Emma says:

    Nice work on the feature! Black walnuts are definitely an acquired taste, I’ve been sneaking them into my oatmeal a few times a week, and there’s really no sneaking about it, it’s quite obvious.

    Espresso and black walnut, I like the way you think;)

    • shannon says:

      black walnuts in oatmeal seems hardcore, Emma: only b/c that’s a seriously strong flavor first thing in the morning (although i suppose the same could be said for coffee, for some). i agree: an acquired taste, to be sure, and no: even in my most subtle use of them in these recipes, that flavor is definitely there.

      those cookies = delicious: it’s fun what espresso does to black walnuts, as both of them are bitterish and potent, but it’s nothing short of magical. I wish a chocolatier would come up with some sort of dark chocolate/black walnut/espresso/Disney haunted forest bar sometime. I’d eat that.

  5. I haven’t seen this month’s Feast yet, so I’m glad to see this. Congrats on the feature! You done good, and the recipes are fantastic. You should be proud. And this is perfect for me because I much prefer black walnuts to regular ones!

    • shannon says:

      Thank you, John! It’s a great issue, and very black-walnut heavy/friendly…so many things in here and i need to talk about them in a future post. There’s even a black walnut syrup recipe to be used in cocktails (something which, i imagine, would be right in your wheelhouse).

  6. A feature, a feature, a feature! Happy dance for you! Way to go, Shannon! Congratulations to the nth degree are in order!

    Love, love, love the ranked descriptions for your recipes. I might just have to jump in with the baby steps apprehensive first one. I am such a baby when it comes to black walnuts. I have to admit I have not had them since I was a child.

    I have a very vivid memory of my grandmother pulling out a can of cookies for Sunday dinner’s dessert. When she pulled off the lid I got an unmistakeable whiff of black walnuts and I had to hide my disappointment and politely say I was full. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or be rude, but I soooo did not want to eat those cookies. Maybe my tastes have changed since then? Only one way to find out. :)

    • shannon says:

      thank you so much! i was nervous about it to the nth degree for a LONG time, so i’m happy it’s been so well received. totally worth the work and the constant recipe-testing, for sure.

      i figured the ranking would be helpful, although a surprising number of you have come out in support of our little walnut friends, which is great! you already have tried and disliked them, so for you i say go with the cake first. maybe even the pesto if you want a savory, and enjoy pesto, b/c you could find ways to use that in a subtle way as well, if you wanted to. and maybe your tastes have changed, you never know: maybe not, and that’s okay too!

      oh yeah…the smell, right! when you close up black walnuts in a container and then unleash them? WHOA. i mean, it’s something. :) i still say with that smell it really is funny how people thought it was a good idea to eat them (even though they are oddly delicious). like buttermilk: i mean…really. b/c buttermilk just smells like bad milk, but works so well for things.

  7. Monica says:

    Congratulations on you feature, Shannon!! And kudos of picking up a foreign ingredient and becoming such an expert. I bet those recipes you developed are terrific! I’ve heard of black walnuts but don’t think I’ve ever had/tasted it. It’s very interesting to learn about something new. I now know exactly where to get a good recipe if I ever want to experiment.

    • shannon says:

      thank you Monica! i’m sure i’m not a huge expert, but i definitely know more about them (lots more) than i did prior to my assignment, and i’m happy for that knowledge. I really like all my recipes: otherwise i would have had to make others, b/c i can’t handle being “meh” about anything that gets published with my name on it. So i stand by all of them, and if you ever want to experiment, i hope you’ll be happy trying one of these. for you, i can see the chocolate cookies being a great one. with or without espresso, depending on your preference (i’ve made them both ways and liked them).

  8. This is such a great post, Shannon–so informative. We happen to like black walnuts over here, so I’ll be making room in my sched to make every single recipe. Oh my, 6-7 recipes… You’re a trooper. That’s an honor and a boatload of work. I’m headed over to check out your feature. I’m sure it’s amazing.

    • shannon says:

      thank you! i swear, i had ZERO idea how many of you were familiar with/enjoyed black walnuts? i suppose there should be a follow up question sometime about why exactly you NEVER see any bloggers whipping them out for recipes: do we all think everyone else hates them? is their rep that bad? i think it’s interesting. something to think about.

  9. CONGRATS ON BEING A COVER-GIRL! :) YOU’RE SO FAMOUS

    FH’s dad LOVES black walnuts. As you know, I have never tried one… but i did see that Jeni’s is featuring them in one of their seasonal ice creams so they must be good!

    I love that you broke the recipes down ITO how adventurous we are ~ I need to make that banana/walnut cake (even though I feel like the walnut butter and/or pesto would be amazing – I think the cake is the only thing I could get FH to eat as well). So that’s what is going to happen if i ever find some black walnuts.

    • shannon says:

      COVER GIRL lol. it’s the best way to “be” on a cover without having my face all huge on the magazine. Here…photo my salad, please.

      you know, isn’t FH’s family also from Ohio? bc i believe that Ohio is – along with MO – one of the biggest producers of them as well. Hence Jeni’s having the ice cream (that one is in the book as well). it’s a total old-school flavor: i’ve heard a few of the STL ice cream shops have it as well and i wonder how they do with it.

      i need to go on the hunt for black walnuts for you, as you assisted me in my (many) crises during the making of this article lol.

  10. Ashley says:

    Wahoo!!!! You are incredible! A new ingredient, tinged with apprehension from outside sources, to develop 7 recipes with! I’m so in awe of you, Shannon! All those recipes sound insanely good. I’m torn between the ice cream (because it’s ice cream, duh), the cookies (because they’re chocolate AND cookies, duh), the pesto, and the wild rice salad (because grain salads are my lunch about 50% of the time….without lettuce in them).

    Funny story about black walnuts: I hadn’t really tasted them until this past Christmas, when my mom made snowball cookies with them. I guess I didn’t realize they were a funky relative of the walnut, but I fell in love with those darn cookies. I wish I had one right now…

    • shannon says:

      yay! thank you! although you do not have to be in awe of me: i’m amazed i didn’t cave under the pressure or cry even one time, so you could be in awe of THAT. :) I love grain salads, and the Feast team seemed to especially like this wild rice recipe, so i say go for it! that’s my boldest recipe. the pesto is the most flexible (duh, pesto) and obviously the cookies and ice cream are both worthwhile and delicious treats.

      you know what? making snowball cookies with these never occurred to me, but that would be an interesting application/twist! we use pecans for our snowballs, so i didn’t make the connection. i’ll have to try that; isn’t it funny how you can fall in love with the weirdest things? yes.

  11. Wendy says:

    I am in awe of your recipe development talents, Shannon! Its one thing to come up with one recipe but six (sweet and savory)?! Even when your main ingredient is something I can’t eat, I am having such fun learning about foods I had never heard of. That salad is a beauty. For me, fruit and cheese take a salad out of the realm of rabbit food and place it firmly in the cravings department. I am now on a mission to make a nut-free version of this salad.

    • shannon says:

      Wendy, you come up with 30-second adorable cakes and cookies that stay delicious for half an ice age: it’s safe to say we all have some talent in recipe development. :) It took lots of thinking and research to sort of work out how to do six things that were individual things and not a repeat or echo of each other, but once the ideas started flowing, i got really inspired by the project! challenges have always been fun for me, and i sort of thrive on them, so although it sounds laborious, it was fun for me. Isn’t that salad gorgeous? i have the food stylings of Jenn Silverberg to thank for those photos: she’s amazing to watch work. Definitely not rabbit food, and i want it right now, as i sit here under another big, downy blanket of snow. *sigh*

    • shannon says:

      i will ps this and say that this salad could be easily done sans nuts, since i know you can’t have them: i was thinking about this last night b/c although removing nuts is easy from the salad itself, the dressing has them too – harder to remove. if you had an orange vinaigrette recipe you liked, you could substitute that in pretty easily; it would alter the flavor somewhat, b/c the nuts sort of make it a bit “creamy” where a straight vinaigrette is not creamy, but i think it would still be really wonderful. certainly a bit lighter.

  12. What a wonderful article! As someone who has a dog who routinely drops disgusting things in my lap, my favorite line is the spot-on phrase:

    Surrounded by an outer husk eerily similar in size and color to a dirty, waterlogged tennis ball…

  13. Okay, you’ve officially convinced me to give black walnuts a second chance. As I may have mentioned before, I bought black walnuts accidentally awhile back and was in a bit of shock, thinking I had bought regular walnuts. I didn’t really know what to do with them, and their strong flavor definitely put me off. I’ll have to try one of your recipes and see what I really think of them. Thanks for all the info, and all the hard work researching these strange nuts and putting together so many recipes!

  14. Way to go, Shannon!…taking on an ingredient you knew nothing about and emerging from the recipe-creating process triumphant! Honestly, I had never heard of a black walnut before I read your post about your article. I wonder if it’s because they’re not as common in my area? I love that you have an attitude-based recipe selection guide, hehe :)

  15. Hi Shannon- I finally got a chance to sit down and read the Feb FEAST. So great to see your name on two articles, with the black walnut story continuing on several pages! Your talents are truly amazing and inspiring! Keep up the great work!

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