We’re on the wild side again, getting squirrely. I don’t know what it is about the cool weather of Autumn, but it makes me want to scurry along the roadsides and woods to gather like a squirrel. Now I can understand their annoying habit of darting back and forth in front of cars this time of year; their little brains are overwhelmed with hoarding for the winter and each cooler day brings worried thoughts of whether there are enough stores for the winter.
Wild Black Walnuts
You’ll notice them littering the roadsides. Just gather them up; the ripe ones are on the ground. That’s the easy part, for when you return home they must be cracked open to be enjoyed and that’s when the work begins.
Harvest nuts from the ground, choosing ones with yellowish-green, unbroken hulls. The nuts are ripe when the outer shell is soft and leaves an indentation when pressed with a thumb. These outer hulls need to be removed from the inner, dark shell. This should be done immediately. Wear heavy duty rubber gloves to prevent the natural dye from staining your fingers. Work on a surface that won’t matter if it gets stained; thick newspapers are a good choice. Using a small, sharp knife, cut around the entire outer shell from stem to tip and back up to the stem, then twist and pull the husk off of the inner nut. I found it even easier, but more time consuming, to make another score, quartering the husk and then if it didn’t come apart easily, I could use the tip of my knife and gently pry it apart. Scrape off as much of the fibrous covering as you can and place the nuts in a bucket of water. Wash the nuts, changing the water 6-8 times, by agitating and stirring them with a long-handled spoon or broom handle, until most of the fleshy outer husk is removed. Drain the nuts and place on screening or newspaper. To cure, dry in a shed or garage for 2 weeks, making sure to protect from any predatory squirrels.
When the walnuts are cured, they need more than your average nutcracker. Use a hammer or a vise to crack them open and then large wire snippers to break the membrane between the nut pieces. Black walnut nutmeats are much more difficult to extract than English/Persian walnuts. Just keep reminding yourself during this arduous task that they are worth the effort, for being much stronger in taste, a little goes a long way. Store in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 2 years.
Caution: Along with staining anything they touch, the husks and shells will kill earthworms, harm/kill animals and inhibit plant growth. Do Not Compost! Discard in the trash and keep away from pets and horses!
End Note: The husks of black walnuts have been used for centuries as a natural dye for fabric, wool, baskets, hair (I dare you!), wood and also as an ink. Use the husks immediately before they turn black and rot.