Cooking With Hickories: You Gotta Be Nuts

When they're feeling charitable, friends and family consider me a Pollyanna who's forever trying to make lemonade out of lemons ("I realize I've led us off the trail and we've gotten caught in a cloudburst, but think how great it will feel when we make it back to civilization and put on some dry clothes!")

More often they are wary of my tendency toward not just getting lost, but wandering into brambles or slogging through swamps, all the while insisting, "It can't be much farther …"

So when I bounded into the office a few weeks ago with a bag full of hickory nuts that I had gathered from the ground, and chattered excitedly how great they would taste once you took the time to crack them open and pry out the meat, only a handful of naïve colleagues took the bait (with some prompting).

Loyal readers will recall how I issued a challenge to three food experts: Rich Swanson, an award-winning chef who frequently whips out gourmet dishes and offers free samples; Jenna Cho, who writes the "Salt to Taste" column; and Spilling the Beans columnist Jill Blanchette.

"Take these and see what you can come up with," I instructed.

I then promised readers I would report the results. Here goes:

First of all, Rich decided he would initially roast the nuts so they would pop up open more readily.

He looked forlorn the next day.

"They did pop open fairly easily, but about half of them had these ugly, white worms," he lamented.

"What about the other half?" I asked.

"I became so sick to my stomach that I threw out the whole batch."

Horrified when she heard that story Jenna raced home and moved the nuts from her kitchen to the porch. The next morning they were gone. At least that's Jenna's story, and she's sticking to it.

"I think a squirrel must have run off with them," she said. It sounded a little like a dog-ate-my-homework excuse, but I didn't press the point.

Jill, who grew up on a rural area and spent much of her childhood plucking beetles from plants in a large family garden, wasn't about to be deterred by a few grubs that had found their way into hickory nuts. I had also provided her with a brick to help crack open the nuts, suggesting she use a hammer.

Jill went online and found a website featuring a guy who easily cracked the nuts between two rocks and deftly pulled whole meats from the shell, and so she tried that technique.

I also attempted that system and have concluded the guy on the website employed some sleight of hand. After some practice I was able to crack the tough shells by placing them on a flat boulder and tapping them with a 5-pound sledge hammer but never in dozens of strikes could I remove the nuts whole.

Jill also had difficulty extricating the nut meats and wound up using a lobster pick. She managed to accumulate a few cups and the other day brought in a batch of oatmeal cookies fortified with hickory nuts.

They were unbelievably tasty, in an earthy, Euell Gibbons kind of way. For the recipe and a more detailed report of Jill's hickory nut travails, check out an upcoming Spilling the Beans column.

As for me, I, too, struggled a couple hours to pry the nut meats free and finally came up with a cup or so.

I could have tried putting them into something healthy and horrible tasting, like a rutabaga and hickory nut casserole, but opted for a less nutritious but delectable concoction: a chocolate-coated candy crunch infused with hickory nuts. Here's the recipe:

2 sticks butter

1 cup sugar

3 tsp water

Pinch of salt

8 ounces of sweetened chocolate chips

Melt the butter in a saucepan and pour in the sugar, salt and water. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When the mixture turns golden brown, add the nuts and pour onto a buttered cookie sheet. Let it cool until hard. Microwave the chocolate chips and apply like icing with a spatula. After a while, break into pieces.

The beauty of this recipe is not just its simplicity, but that you could substitute sawdust or wood chips for the hickory nuts and it would taste just as good.

I think in the future I'll probably leave the hickory nuts for the squirrels.

In the mean time, bon appetit!

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