December 15, 2021
Foragers and Herbalists
By Merrie F. Witkin
This is the first of a series of columns I will be writing that focus on how to harvest and use some of the wonderful ingredients you can find in your own back yard or in neighboring woods and fields, and what to do with the abundance of the herbs you may have cultivated or, if you are lucky, discovered growing wild.
As it is now December with winter fully settling in, not much remains growing. So I devote this first column to the fall harvest of nuts from our Eastern American Black Walnut trees. WVLT Field Notes last discussed this native species in October 2020. Black walnuts, along with butternuts and beech nuts, were an important source of protein as well as a primary nutritive seasoning for native Americans. Black walnuts differ from their English cousins by being more assertive and earthier in flavor. Their shells are harder to crack (which enables them to store well), but they have more protein per ounce than any other tree nut.
October is generally the time to harvest these nuts when they start falling from the trees. My personal stash this year comes from a generous friend via her neighbor’s tree and a serendipitous visit to the Bard college campus where the nuts were falling everywhere! If you are lucky enough to have collected some black walnuts from this fall’s harvest (or have a friend or neighbor who has done so and is willing to share), here is how to prepare them for storage and usage. 1
• To remove the husks take a plastic vegetable bag and put on those surgical gloves you bought at the start of the pandemic. Put the nuts in the bag and using a mallet, pan or other item smash the husks to expose the nut shells. With your gloved hands remove the nuts from the bag and dispose of the bag with the husks.
(The gloves protect your hands from the inky substance in the husks which will stain your fingers.)
• Thoroughly wash the nuts in several changes of water. You can add baking soda to the water, which will help remove the black inky material from the shells.
• Air dry the washed nuts for at least 2 weeks and once dry, store in a cool spot. The walnuts can stay in their uncracked shells for a year or more.
• When you are ready to use them, wrap the shells in a towel and place on a hard impervious surface (such as a concrete floor, piece of gunk stone or your driveway) and crack with a hammer. I recommend you wear leather gloves for safety. The hulls will shatter into several pieces, and you can pick out the nuts. Store the shelled nuts in a jar or plastic container in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.
1. If you did not harvest any this year but are game to try them, you can buy black walnuts from nuts.com or from Hammons, a Missouri—based company that has been processing wild harvested black walnuts for over 70 years.
Because of their distinctive flavor, most recipes use black walnuts in deserts, where maple sugar, vanilla and/or chocolate “tame” their earthiness. And while black walnuts certainly shine in desserts such as fudge and walnut ice cream, their earthiness adds a welcome note (and crunchiness) to savory dishes as well—think lentils, or mushrooms sautéed or in a pasta sauce, or sage and onion dressing, substantial winter comfort dishes. A warm lentil and black walnut salad is a versatile fall and winter dish that pairs well with firm fleshed fish such as roasted salmon, cod or halibut, and equally well with sausages like kielbasa or other fresh garlic sausages, a classic French and Italian pairing. The key is to use the small green French le Puy lentils or the small black caviar lentils, both of which retain their shape (and do not become mushy) when cooked.
Warm lentil salad with black walnuts and mustard vinaigrette
Inspired by a recipe from Martha Rose Shulman. 2
1 and 1/4 cups of small French le Puy (green) or black caviar lentils, rinsed and picked over to remove any grit or stones1 large clove of garlic, split to (but not through) stem end
3 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
3 parsley sprigs with stems
2 small or one large bay leaves
1/3 cup of black walnuts
2 stalks of celery, cut into small dice
1 large or 2 medium carrots, cut into small dice
1 medium yellow onion, diced small
4 large radishes (optional), diced small
1 tbsp olive oil
For the dressing
1 tsp good quality mustard
2 tbsps sherry vinegar or good quality wine vinegar
4 tbsps oil (use olive oil, or mixture of olive oil and walnut oil if you have it)
Salt and pepper
2. Featured in Lentils: Packed With Protein—and Flavor, The New York Times, Nov. 15, 2010.
E. Barrie Kavasch, Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes, Dover Publications edition, 2005.
Harvesting Black Walnut Trees: When Do Black Walnuts Fall, from Gardening Know How, https:// www.gardening know how.com
Information on Black Walnuts, from Nuts.com, https://www.nuts.com.
Black walnuts: Worth the trouble, by Patterson Clark, from Urban Jungle, October 4, 2011; http:// www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/urban-jungle/pages/111004.html.