Nut Trees Provide Wintertime Staples for the Table

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Pecans collected from a tree sit in a cooking pot waiting to be eaten.
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Look to the Trees for Hard-Shell Delicacies.
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A walnut breaks through its husk while still on the tree.
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Walnut meats added to salads and desserts give a whole new flavor.
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Pecans are delicious as a snack or as part of a dessert.
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Chocolate-walnut muffins make a great snack any time of the day.

If you’re looking for a delicious, nutrition-packed natural food, crack a smile while you enjoy the new crop of hard-shelled fruits this autumn. During November and December, a lot of families put out the traditional holiday bowl of nuts and fancy nutcrackers as part of their home decorations. And as the holiday baking season approaches, a variety of nuts appear on store shelves — the most popular being walnuts and pecans.

But before those cold winter months even get here, why not be adventurous? A few autumn walks with the entire family can produce stronger family ties, essential communication, exercise, and a fall bounty from walnut and pecan trees letting go of their precious delicacies. Harvest nut trees for baking, snacking, decorations and more. Processing them is really pretty simple. Hulling, shelling and storing our native black walnuts and pecans may seem like an old-fashioned way of taking advantage of Mother Nature’s bounty, but it is economical and fun. Just be sure you get to them before the squirrels!

Family history

The walnut family (Juglans species) includes butternuts, English walnuts and native black walnuts. Wild trees can be found in many parts of North America, and their fruit is a hard-shelled nut encased in a fibrous layer called a husk or hull.

While plantation or cultivated walnut trees are often severely pruned in order for strong trunk growth, wild trees can grow to more than 100 feet tall. Black walnut trees grow quickly in warm areas with rich soil and adequate water supply. Most English walnuts are grown commercially, with more than half the world’s supply coming from groves in California.

Pecans are classified in the genus Carya, which also includes shellbark and shagbark hickory. Wild pecan trees can grow to more than 70 feet in height and produce small nutmeats in hard shells. Commercially grown trees yield the large, thin-shelled nuts we are used to eating. The wild pecan trees you’ll encounter in rural America are more likely to be smaller with a thicker shell, but, with patience, shelling enough for home use is definitely doable.

Harvesting nuts

If you have these nut trees in your yard, you already know when the nuts begin to fall, and they are yours for the taking. For those who gather in the woods, first make sure you obtain permission from the property owner, then look for walnuts to begin falling in September. Pecans ripen and can be harvested anytime from August to October, depending on which state you live in.

Both trees may be gently shaken to bring nuts down, just remember to dodge the hard orbs as they fall. Use a long-handled rake or a pole with a hook on the end to reach limbs. Picking the nuts up from under the trees is one way to collect them. Another is to have a couple of people hold an old sheet under the limb to catch the falling nuts while someone else shakes the limb. Children love this job. This process can be rough, so wearing gloves is a good idea as you pick and fill baskets or buckets.

Look for walnuts that have a green to greenish-yellow husk with perhaps a few dark brown spots. Pecan husks should be greenish-yellow with the end of the husk beginning to dry and split open.

After gathering the nuts, they may be stored for no more than a day or two in a cool, dry storage space. In order to store the nuts for a longer period of time, the husk must be removed. This can be a messy job, but there are many ways to handle it.

Husking nuts

One of the best descriptions of husking (or hulling) walnuts in times past is in Mildred A. Kalish’s book, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Here is how she and her family processed walnuts in the 1930s.

“We experimented with various inventive ways to simplify the onerous task. Once or twice we fed the nuts into a hand-turned corn sheller. This seemed like a dandy idea at the time, but left the machine so badly stained that we could barely get it clean. Sometimes we placed the nuts on a discarded barn door for a few days until they softened. … Then donning our four-button overshoes, we stomped until the hulls came off.

“Our best idea involved boring holes in the barn door and placing it on bricks to raise it about half a foot off the ground. If we trampled and scuffed on the nuts long enough, they eventually fell through the holes, leaving the soft, black outer hulls above. … We dried them in the attic where they shared floor space with the supers of honey, ripening pears and ground cherries.

“Years later, as a grown-up … I placed the blackened walnuts in single layers inside sturdy, plastic garbage bags that lay on the apron of the driveway and gleefully ran my Cadillac over them a few times. The hulls were squashed right off, but the nuts were still intact. This was a most satisfying solution.”

Like Mildred, I have tried different solutions, sometimes with hilarious results. The following basic way of husking works, no matter which nut you are processing.

You will need: rubber gloves; newspapers; a hard surface to work on; a hammer, knife or other instrument to cut away the husk; a bucket; a source for running water; and net bags, a screen or a table for storing the husked nuts while they dry for a few days.

Begin by wearing old clothes and rubber gloves. Place a nut on a layer of newspaper on a flat, hard surface. Using the claw side of a hammer or knife, gently pound or cut off the husk (not applicable with pecans). Be prepared for brown stain to come with the husk. When the nut is completely free of the husk, place it in a bucket. It helps to wrap up the husks every so often in the newspaper and begin again on fresh papers.

When your bucket is about half full of nuts, fill it with water. Using a heavy stick or an old broom handle, stir the nuts. Rinse and repeat until clear water runs out of the bucket. Discard any nuts that float; that means they have no nutmeat inside.

Once the nuts are washed, spread them on newspapers to drain thoroughly. Work in batches until all of your bounty is husked, cleaned and drained. Drained nuts then need to either be placed in net bags and hung, or better yet, laid in single layers on screens or tables in a protected area such as a shed, basement, attic or porch room, where they can benefit from a few days or weeks of dry air circulation. Again, you want them in an area safe from pests, squirrels and inclement weather.

Gather the thoroughly dried nuts in baskets or mesh bags and store in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to crack and use them.

Cracking nuts

Before beginning the task of cracking nuts, you will need: A hard, flat surface (brick, sidewalk or sturdy table); a hammer or commercial nutcracker; and nut picks or a large sewing needle to remove meats.

Our family uses a brick for a hard surface, and with more than 30 years’ use, it has a round indentation just right for holding the nuts in place.

Using the hammer, gently tap the nut as you turn the shell. After a complete turn, begin tapping harder until you hear or feel the shell crack and it falls apart. Place nutmeats and any pieces of shell still holding nutmeats in a bowl.

Separate the nutmeats from the shells, working with small batches. Place about 1/4 cup of broken nuts on a white surface such as a plate or saucer. (White will contrast the colors of shell versus nutmeats, and in no time you will have picked out enough nutmeats for that favorite recipe.) Use the nut pick or needle for stubborn pieces of nutmeat, prying them away from the shell.

Storing your nut harvest

To store your bounty for later use, place nutmeats in freezer-safe containers or lock-top plastic bags and freeze for up to a year. Refrigerated nutmeats will keep for cooking and baking for up to six months in sealed jars or in tightly sealed plastic containers.

Cooking with nuts

Most cake and cookie recipes call for 1/2 to 3/4 cup of nutmeats. That amount is not set in stone; more or less can be stirred in for a bigger or milder nutty taste. Chopping or grinding nutmeats should be done just before use to ensure fresh flavor. Whole or half nutmeats are wonderful garnishes for baked goods, as well as for main dishes and salads.

Many recipes call for toasted nutmeats. Toasting brings out the oils, intensifying the taste. Because oil is released, watch closely so the nutmeats don’t burn.

Oven toasting: Spread nutmeats on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 5 minutes. Larger pieces may take a few more minutes. Stir occasionally until just lightly browned. Cool completely.

Skillet toasting: In a small skillet over low heat, place a single layer of nutmeats. Shake the pan or stir constantly until you begin to smell a nutty fragrance. A little oil or butter may be used, especially if a seasoned coating is going to be added to them. Cool completely.

Enjoy the benefits of adding nature’s bounty to your dishes. With vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and high-quality carbohydrates, walnuts and pecans will make baking and cooking all the better during the coming months.

However, always let guests know when nuts are on the menu as allergic reactions can be serious.   

Newspaper columnist and author Connie Moore is enjoying herself at her home in Ohio with the release of her latest book, Old Cakes, New Friends — A Baking Memoir. She can be contacted by email at

How to crack nuts

Cracking a pecan with a nutcracker is quick and easy. The nutcracker is especially well-suited to the pecan, since cracking with a hammer is harder to do and you usually want whole pecan meats.

1. Holding the pecan crossways, snip both ends of the shell with the nutcracker.

2. Place the remaining nut and shell lengthwise in the cracker and press down firmly until you hear a good crack.

3. Gently peel off the remaining shell for a perfectly cracked pecan.

Pecan-Cheddar Wafers Recipe

These little crackers are perfect for serving with dips as an appetizer or snack.

8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Dash cayenne pepper
1 cup chopped pecan pieces, raw or toasted

Cream together cheese and butter until soft, smooth and well-blended. Add flour and pepper. Stir in pecans until thoroughly mixed.

Shape into a log and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 1 hour.

Heat oven to 350°F.

Slice dough 1/4 inch thick and place on cookie sheets. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until set. Do not brown. Cool.

Yields about 2 dozen.

Walnut Chicken Salad Recipe

This filling makes a great sandwich, too.

2 cups cubed, cooked chicken
1/2 cup diced celery
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 cup frozen peas, thawed and drained
1/4 to 3/4 cup black or English walnut nutmeats, raw or toasted
Lettuce, leaves or shredded
1 egg, hard-cooked and finely minced
Walnut halves or large pieces for garnish

In large bowl, combine chicken, celery, onion, peas and walnuts. (If using black walnuts, use 1/4 cup, as these nuts have a strong flavor.) Blend in enough mayonnaise to moisten ingredients. Chill until serving time.

Arrange lettuce on six salad plates. Mound chicken salad on lettuce. Sprinkle egg over tops and garnish with nut halves or large pieces.

Yields 6 servings.