Let’s face it. The black walnut, though it grows in abundance in this part of the country, is the outcast of the nut world. It will probably never be as popular as the peanut, the pecan, or its foreign walnut cousins.
Maybe that’s because black walnut nutmeats are so notoriously difficult to extract. The shell is damn near impenetrable, and struggling with the hull can stain your hands for days, if not weeks. There is no trick. We go one-by-one with a hammer and an anvil. My father-in-law drives over them with his truck. Then, the meat doesn’t just pop out once you’ve cracked the casing. You have to pry it out. After all that, some people will tell you, you end up with a nut that can taste astringent, almost acrid, even offensive.
But those who love black walnuts describe their flavor differently, as reminiscent of grapefruit, grass, and damp forest. The black walnut has depth of flavor. I blend black walnuts with country ham, cheese, and foraged black trumpet mushrooms to make an excellent filling for stuffed pastas, like agnolotti. I whisk balsamic vinegar with fig preserves, use that to glaze roast pork loins, and coat the loins with chopped black walnuts before returning them to the oven to finish. Browsing recipes, you’ll see black walnuts in cookies, quick breads, and ice cream.
My bourbon black walnut butter is great in a grown-up version of peanut butter and jelly, and I’ve been thinking recently about how it would taste on a charcuterie board loaded with thin slices of coppa and local cheeses.