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Learning more about walnuts
JOHN GIBBS is a resident of Gays Mills, Wisconsin. He is an award-winning weekly columnist for the Crawford County Independent newspaper in Gays Mills, Wisconsin.

GAYS MILLS - Last week, I gushed a bit about the virtues of black walnuts. This week, let’s talk about how to deal with the nuts after they’ve been collected.  

There is some work involved in processing the nuts, but if you have already collected the nuts you are well on the way to enjoying the fruits, sorry, nuts, of your labor. The good news: there is no hurry to do much after collecting the nuts.

My trick-of the-trade on collecting and husking is to wait until the husks turn black right where they’ve fallen. Then, wearing knee high rubber boots and long rubber gloves, step on the nuts to get the husk off and throw the nuts themselves into a bucket. Leave the husks where you found them and avoid a lot of work and mess. 

Once the collected nuts are husked, I like to give them a good washing. I soak them in a bucket of water and rinse and repeat thoroughly at least three times. That water turns inky black, but doesn’t penetrate the nuts themselves. I hose them off in an old bee box with a screened bottom I use just for that purpose. Then the nuts are spread out to dry for several days on an old, framed window screen. 

If you have squirrels about, they are getting ready for winter just like you are. You will also have to have a screen on top of the nuts as they dry and season to deter the bushy-tailed varmints.  

Once dried off and sun-cured for a few days, the nuts will keep for a long time. Store them in a box, bucket, or burlap sack. 

Cracking and picking the nuts is a great winter activity and can be done at your own pace. Everyone has their own method of cracking the nuts. Some swear by the tried and true hammer method which is a bit messy and hard to control. Another method is using a vise, which offers more control and less nut shrapnel flying around. I use a heavy duty nut cracker designed to handle the very hard walnut shells.

The method of picking out the nutmeats I use has evolved. I crack about a quart or two of walnuts into a five-quart ice cream bucket. I put the lid on and shake the bucket thoroughly. Then, I pour the mix into a colander and stir it around. This sifts out a lot of the ‘fines,’ like shell grit and small pieces of shell. Some small walnut meats pass through, but I don’t worry about them.

The shaken and sifted mix is then spread on a cookie sheet. The shaking has separated a lot of the big nut meat pieces from the shells. I use a dental tool, a sharp needle pointed thing to pick up each piece and set them aside. I don’t bother with big pieces of shell that still have nut meat in them; there is plenty of already freed nut meat without digging out every last morsel.

An early rookie mistake I made years ago was to fill a quart jar with freshly picked nut meats. Within a few days, the mass had thoroughly molded into a solid green plug in the jar. It was impressive–my unintended science project! The processed nuts can be frozen, but I go ahead and roast them right away, gently, on the wood stove or in an oven. The nuts are pretty forgiving, I usually roast them until they smell done.

Anyway, there you have it: one way to take advantage of a locally sourced and very available gourmet treat.