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OK Maybe You CAN Eat Black Walnuts

Q. May I suggest you cover the topic of harvesting black walnuts? I know that some people consider the trees a pest and remove them from the landscape because they inhibit the growth of other plants, especially tomatoes. And the nuts are a mess to process—but harvesting and using them as food would be more popular if people had some pointers on the proper way to do it.

---Pete in the Andorra section of Philadelphia

A. Ok—I can hear what you're thinking: "Clearly this person has not been listening to the show lately…." Truth told: I had to go back to emails from 2015 to find a written question this direct on the topic. All of the chatter you've heard recently on the show about harvesting and eating black walnuts has come from phone calls—and ONLY phone calls. It turns out that we've never done a Q of The Week on using the ubiquitous nuts; just about keeping the trees away from tomatoes and other plants whose growth they inhibit.

But we DID also get a very recent email about all those phone calls from my old friend, Dorene Pasekoff of Hill Creek Farm in Pottstown, PA who wrote, "give it up, Mike!"

Doreen—who used to run a huge community garden and now has a small farm—wrote to say that her experience is very similar; she has 200 blogs on her farm's website, but {quote} "everybody just reads the ones on black walnuts!" So we're using her blogs and a University of Illinois Extension article that supplied some of her information to put together a black walnut 'how to'.

Let's start with getting the green husks off.

Doreen puts six whole walnuts at a time on her driveway and presses a 'work-booted foot' over each one until the hulls slip off. She says that she tosses the hulls into a box and the walnuts into a bucket, adding that "you can hull a lot of nuts in a reasonable amount of time with this method. But you must wear gloves, or your hands will be stained black and brown".

Doreen continues: "Opinions are divided about composting the hulls — some sources say that if the composting is complete, the juglone that inhibits the growth of other plants will break down. Others say to simply pile the hulls up somewhere they won't interfere with beloved plants. I use mine to fill in sunken areas around the farm, away from crops I care about.

The Illinois Extension article adds that the most recently dropped nuts have the sweetest flavor; and they even recommend shaking the tree to get prime candidates. The meat in older nuts, they warn, can get dark and stronger tasting. So get those husks off right away.

Then comes washing. Doreen is fascinated with the technique of putting the hulled nuts into a small cement mixer. Add three times as much water as nuts, some small stones and/or a handful of grit and "let it rip!" (Doreen confesses that she will be "haunting Craigslist next year" for her own 'black walnut cement mixer'.)

Or, notes Illinois, you can place the nuts in a wire basket and hit them with a power washer to remove any remaining hull pieces and juice—with the warning that this rinse water is brown, brown, brown; so choose a spot you aren't picky about and where you won't be growing tomatoes any time soon. (The naturally occurring juglone found in all parts of a black walnut plant is tomato Kryptonite.)

Next, the cleaned but un-cracked walnuts are laid out to dry in an airy protected spot (where Evil Squirrels can't get at them) for a month to six weeks. This gives you time to find your tool of choice to crack them. Everyone agrees that regular nut-crackers will not crack a black walnut, and most "black walnut crackers" don't do the job either.

The Illinois Extension notes that cleaned and cured but un-cracked nuts should stay fresh for a year in a cool, dry spot. When it's finally time to get cracking, they advise a heavy-duty vise for single nuts and a burlap sack for large numbers. Whack the sack repeatedly with a mallet and then assemble a team to sort through and remove the nutmeat. That meat should be allowed to cure for a day or two before being refrigerated in a moisture-proof container—or frozen, which can keep it fresh for two years.

Ah, but Doreen scored the best cracker of them all: "The W. O Weber Black Walnut Cracker". She explains that a senior citizen at her church heard about the task at hand and lent her his 'Weber'. You put a black walnut into the little holder and crank the long handle down, reports Doreen, who adds "that you need to pull that handle down hard, but it crushes the shell around the nutmeat nicely and doesn't take nearly the strength that a vise requires. Seated on a sturdy base, her Weber produces cracked black walnuts with only moderate effort.

Doreen soon has to return that cracker to its owner, but hopes for its loan again next year. Right now, however, it's time to make cookies!

To help you do that, we will attach the recipe that our own Brett Rader used to make the cookies we sampled on the air a few weeks back:
(PS: Brett's secret ingredient is to add one teaspoon of vanilla extract.)

Original Hill Creek Farm Blog:

World's Finest Walnut Cracker:

Illinois Extension article:

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