Last spring, I read Mark Shepard’s book, in which he outlines a revolutionary way of farming that endeavors to be permanent and to build up rather than deplete the land. The basis of this restoration agriculture is to use perennials, planted in polyculture, as the main plant life on the land—so that rather than tilling the soil every year, or multiple times a year, the farmer can let residue and organic matter and microbiotic life build up in the soil. To see Mark Shepard’s vision through, we’d have to radically transform our diet, from one based on corn and soy to one based on chestnuts, hazelnuts, other nuts, fruit, and products from grazing animals.
I’m a vegetable farmer, and I rent land year-to-year, which means that I can’t really sensibly invest in tree plantings. However, when I moved into the house where I currently live, I was excited and happy to see large amounts of black walnut trees.
Perhaps I could start incorporating nuts as a staple in my diet, as a step toward Mark Shepard’s vision. So last fall I harvested several buckets full of the walnuts, cut the squishy outer hulls off, and let them dry a bit on a screen in the garage. Then I brought them into the house and started cracking.
Black walnut shells are notoriously hard. If I buy one of those nut mixes in the grocery store, I can often crush the shells of regular walnuts just with my hand against a hard surface. This is absolutely not the case with black walnuts. Those shells are impervious!
My last resort was to take a hammer, and pound the nut on the concrete floor of my basement. It worked—but the walnut pieces ended up all over the floor. Shards of shell would fly 5 feet from the intensity of the impact. It’s a fun idea to squat on the floor and make a mess, but if you just want black walnuts to eat, there’s got to be a better way.
Lucky for me, Lehman’s has a hard-shell nutcracker, made especially for black walnuts! It’s a simple metal machine that can be mounted horizontally or vertically, and uses a long handle to get good solid leverage on the nut to crack it between a bolt and a cup.
I’ve found that shards of the shells are still prone to flying a good distance if you let them, but the solution is simple—I simply put my hand around the nut as I slowly push the handle down with my other hand. That way, the crushed nut ends up in my hand and I can pick the nutmeats out from the shell.
So, I now have a convenient means of eating black walnuts! They have such a unique, interesting flavor—I wish I knew how to describe it. All I know is that I like it a lot, and it belongs in a dessert.
Good thing I have Simply in Season, which has a great recipe for Black Walnut Cake—and an inspired friend who sprinkled her homemade chocolate mousse with the nutty treasures. I’d best get cooking, and taking full advantage of the perennial abundance in my backyard!