Thursday, October 15, 2009

Black walnut update and a chuckle...

About a week and a half ago, Anne-Marie reported here that she had stumbled on what appeared to be a treasure trove of black walnuts while riding through the Starmount neighborhood here in Greensboro, and she promised an update on our processing of same into some delicious, very local and free food. I think the suspense has gone on long enough, though, and since the result was both comical and enlightening, I felt it time to tell all.

I remember her strolling up the sidewalk that Saturday a week ago, proudly carrying a bulging sack full of these potential delicacies. To the uninitiated, these walnuts are about an three inches across in their outer husk, which must be removed to get to the good stuff. Although the contents of the sack appeared to me at first glance to be in various stages of decomposition (these were nuts that had already fallen from the tree rather than being picked), I didn't really know doodley about them myself so decided, along with Anne-Marie, to investigate further. A quick trip online revealed a multi-step process to get to the aforementioned good stuff, but what we read also held great promise. "The flavor of black walnut lends a gourmet touch to cookies, breads, cakes, and other baked goods. The nutmeats are expensive and difficult to locate; discovering an available crop of black walnuts is a real find." As we came to find later, however, we weren't yet aware of Rule #1 of found food: If it's already on the ground, it might well be there for a very good reason.

A suggested method for removing the husks involved drilling a hole in a board about the size of the nut in the shell, then pounding the whole thing through the hole with a hammer, stripping off the outer husk. An accompanying warning, though, was that "Hulling walnuts, removing the husk, can be a difficult and messy task. The indelible (my italics) dye from the husk stains hands, clothes, tools and work surfaces." What followed can only be a testament to that truth. Well, that truth and the fact that this batch of walnuts was, indeed, already well on the way to rotting. Out of about 35 or so in this batch, only three made it to the next step which is curing for two weeks. So, we went from here :

I managed to stain my shorts, my T-shirt, my legs and even a spot under my chin as a result of some vigorous hammering and related splashing of walnut juices. Many of the husks, upon stripping, also revealed evidence of what we could only assume were "walnut weevils and husk fly maggots" as described in the online article. Yum! The final test was to submerge the thirteen (a prescient number?) husked nuts in water and to retain only those which sunk to the bottom - the three you see below. Unfortunately, you can't even compost the removed husks. As the online article we consulted stated pretty clearly: "Do not compost walnut husks. Juglone, a naturally occurring chemical released by all parts of black walnut trees, can have a toxic effect on many vegetables and landscape plants."

And so it seems that there is no such thing as a free lunch after all. That won't deter us from more "fun with food" experiments in the future, however. We made a mess, we learned a lot, but we will press on. And that brown spot under my chin is just about gone. Indelible? I don't think so.

And as Anne-Marie is headed off to Denver we won't break into the edibles until mid-week next... stay tuned for the final outcome!