I was on a run in Northside when I tripped on what looked like a green golf ball on the sidewalk. It wasn’t a golf ball; it was an unhulled black walnut (Juglans nigra), and the sidewalk and street were littered with them. I’d heard tell of harvesting black walnuts for their distinctively rich nut meats and using their husks as a dye. I’d also heard the walnuts put up a good fight and that processing them was difficult, but I felt up to the task.
Black walnuts are large deciduous trees and possess compound leaves with alternating spade-shaped leaflets in groups 15-20. The nuts ripen to a green or yellow and subsequently turn brown in early autumn in Iowa, they can be picked off the tree or gathered from the lawn before the squirrels get to them. The nuts are roughly two inches in diameter. I collected some 15 lbs of nuts from a single tree in a single evening though I could have easily collected twice as much.
Gathering the nuts was the easy part and I also saved a few of the leaves. I knew the hulls are notorious for staining so I grabbed a pair of gloves and put on an old sweatshirt and began the gnarly work of hulling the nuts on my porch. The brown and dry hulls peeled off easily though the fresh green nuts took a little more effort. A screwdriver helped. About a fifth of the nuts contained maggots in the hull but that is no biggie as the grubs don’t penetrate the nut.
The 15 lb bag of nuts took two hours to hull. Next came the drying. I left the hulled nuts to cure on my kitchen table for a week. When it came time to crack the nuts I returned with the gloves, an old rag, a hammer, and took them to my cement stoop. With the nut wrapped in the rag, a few good whacks did the trick. The dried nut meets dislodged from the shell rather easily though I did use my pocket knife to pick out any lingering remnants. For every three pounds of nuts, I managed about a cup of nut meats. After shelling I put the nuts in a jar and stored them in the freezer, though I did save a cup for my next project…
Black Walnut Bitters
Fancy pants cocktails are all the rage and what is fancier than making your own bitters? Bitters are those strongly botanical spirits used to flavor cocktails. To make my own black walnut bitters I combined the following in a mason jar:
• 12oz shelled walnuts
• 16 oz 80-100 proof vodka
• 1 teaspoon cacao nibs
• 1/2 teaspoon allspice
• 8 whole cloves
• 1/4 oz dried black walnut leaves
• 1/4 oz black walnut hull
• 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
I kept the jar in a cool place out of the sun and shook it once a day for two weeks, opening and tasting and sniffing it periodically. The color became a rich coffee umber. At the end of two weeks I let the contents drip through a filter into my Chemex and then funneled it into a glass jar with dropper.
The Warlock: A Nutty Cocktail
• 1/12 oz Cedar Ridge Bourbon
• 1/2 oz Punt e Mes Vermouth
• 2 Dashes Black Walnut Bitters
Shake and serve with star anise to garnish.