By Amy Crowell
A large, deciduous tree, the black walnut tends to have a straight and tall single trunk. Its leaves look a lot like pecan leaves—pinnately compound, which means several long, narrow leaflets extending off each side of a shared green midrib. The black walnut fruit is usually the size of a golf ball or larger, and is yellowish-green with black spots when ripe.
Black walnuts typically ripen during September through November, and fall from the tree when they’re ready to eat, making them easy to gather when scattered on the ground. Once the nuts are collected, the real work begins. First, remove the green husks by stomping on them or smashing them with a board on a solid surface (be sure to wear gloves because the juices can stain). Once the green husks are removed, the walnut is revealed. Crack open the shell with a hammer to retrieve the nutmeat. Allowing the nuts to dry or “cure” for a few weeks before cracking may improve the flavor and will make it easier to pry the nutmeat from the shell. Once the nuts are cracked, pick out the nutmeat and eat it raw, roast it or use it like any other nut. In addition to containing high amounts of antioxidants and beneficial fats, the black walnut has more protein than any other nut.
The black walnut’s unique sharp and sour-sweet flavor can demand top dollar. It tastes nothing like the common English walnut; it’s much more aromatic and tastes like an expensive perfume. (Strange, yes, but the taste is hard to describe—author Samuel Thayer once likened it to really good paint.) Whether used in baking or sprinkled on ice cream, black walnuts are a free and plentiful delicacy for the adventurous forager. And for those less inclined to forage for wild food, there are several places to buy wild-harvested and commercially shelled black walnuts online or in retail stores.