Days are getting shorter as we approach the beginning of the holiday season. For forest trees, this year is what is known as a mast year, so not only is it the right season, but it is also a year of special abundance for wild hickories, and I can't wait to use them in my holiday dishes. Shopping for chestnuts, hickories, pecans, and walnuts outside of the grocery store may be less convenient, but the flavor is worth the hassle, at least for small batch quantities.
Nuts grow wild around us, untreated and untamed, right in front of us, if we stop to look for them. In the woods behind our house, I tramp along through the dry leaves with my daughter. We look up to see the tree first, then to down to the ground to find the nuts.
We are prowling for shagbark hickory nuts. The tree is so easy to identify, with its characteristic grey bark that looks like the exfoliating crust of a shaggy old treebeard. The nuts are smooth, ivory colored, and come to a sharp point at one end. We don't have to look more than a few feet because it is a bumper year. If we stay still, we can hear the thunk-thunk-thunk of the nuts falling around us.
If you've ever tried a fresh raw nut from the wild, it is an incomparable experience—a world apart from the dried, treated, warehoused nuts on most grocery shelves. The shagbark hickory, Carya ovate, is one of the few indigenous nuts that the American Indians ate raw. And I can see why. When I eat a nut, plain and raw, there is usually a slightly bitter shell-like taste that nips at you at the end, subtle in some, stronger in others. The flavor improves when they are dried, toasted or roasted. The raw fresh nut of the shagbark, however, is already buttery and sweet, all the way through the end. They taste somewhere between a pecan and walnut, which are in the same family.
The fruit of the shagbark hickory tree falls as a green-to-brown fleshy husk or bur, ranging from the size of a golf ball to a tennis ball. The shagbark husk will form a seam which can be broken open easily and won't stain your hand like a black walnut husk. Inside is an edible seed surrounded by a hard kernel or pit. The nutmeats are what we usually buy in the supermarket as "nuts."
We peel off the outer husks and quickly discard any of the nuts inside that look discolored, moldy. or contain a distinct hole. Next, throw the nuts into a large pot with a few inches of water. The ones that float are suspect, as they are lighter and may have been eaten by the nut weevil (a grub that exits by a perfectly round hole, found naturally in many untreated nuts), or dried and shriveled. We set the floaters aside to crack immediately, but fortunately, many of the floaters we cracked were still good. The premium nuts that don't float can be dried and then stored unshelled in the refrigerator or frozen for a longer shelf life.
To crack the nuts, we prefer a tap with a hammer on a stone (not wood or concrete) surface (our porch). If you are indoors, cover the nut with a cloth to prevent any chips from flying around. Shell the nuts with a nut pick. The nut pick looks a little bit like a dentist's tool and has a small curve at the end. Wedge the pick between the nutmeat and the shell and coax the nut out, as close to whole as possible. When the nut is so very fresh, you can literally see the buttery oil in some of the nuts. After a few days or if they are cracked, the nuts will dry slightly and separate from the shell, making them easier to extract.
Other than eating them straight out of the shell (in small amounts—other nuts do contain enzymes which may make them more difficult to digest in large quantities), they can be toasted or lightly baked for 10 minutes in a 200o F oven. You can substitute wild hickory nuts for walnuts or pecans in any of your favorite holiday recipes. And save the shells for your fire or firepit and November's column!