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!

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Surf’s Up! Hanging Ten In A Kayak

All right, technically my buddy Spyros "Spy" Barres and I weren’t hanging 10 toes off the end off boards while riding waves at Westerly’s Fenway Beach on Thursday, but we were surfing.

I'm Always Chasing Rainbows

All of us who have ventured atop mountains, out to sea, or simply into a nearby park have occasionally faced Mother Nature’s wrath – a sudden thunderstorm, pounding blizzard, gale-force winds, locusts …

Loading Your Backpack: Less Is (Usually) More

Some years ago, preparing to hike the Hundred Mile Wilderness – the final stretch of the fabled Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, I stuffed my backpack with what I initially considered to be the absolute bare minimum for a week in...

Sun, Sun, Sun Here It Comes (Enough Already!)

When I was a kid, the Fourth of July was one of the year’s high holy days, right up there with Halloween and the last day of school, because that was when my parents took my sister and me to the beach for the annual fireworks...

How To Build An Adirondack Chair Out Of Skis In 14,387 Easy Steps

Many people I know share my passion for outdoor recreation but I also have a little secret: Between rounds of kayaking, hiking, gardening, wood-splitting and other activities I also savor the simple act of lounging quietly on a sunny day in a...

A Comedy – And Nearly A Tragedy – Of Errors On Maine's Saddleback Mountain: In The Age Of Cellphones, A Failure To Communicate

A refreshing breeze cooled me despite a blazing late-afternoon sun as I scrambled up the final rocky slope to the 4,121-foot summit of Maine’s Saddleback Mountain earlier this week, but I paused for only a moment to gaze at the glorious,...

Gardening Is Simple! Just Stick Stuff In The Ground And Voila! A Cornucopia Of Fresh Veggies! (Right)

Anyone who has ever attempted to grow vegetables soon realizes it is a true labor of love, with particular emphasis on the labor.

An Explorer’s Guide To The Great Indoors: Hotels Designed For ‘Adventurers’

During decades of traipsing through the wilderness I’ve slept, or attempted to sleep, in every conceivable indoor and outdoor quarters: in freshly dug snow caves; alongside bug-infested swamps; during thunderstorms with no tent; in the...

Alligators, Gorillas, Bears, Snakes, Even Cows: Danger Lurks Where You Least Expect It

The awful story this week about a 2-year-old boy who witnesses said was pulled by an alligator into a lagoon near a Walt Disney World hotel in Orlando, Florida and later found dead serves as a reminder that danger lurks even in "The...

This Bud’s For You: The Unofficial King Of Beer Litter

While kayaking the other morning I spotted a small, dark object poking above the lake surface 100 yards or so ahead, and I was pretty sure it was the head of a turtle until I drew closer and realized the sad truth: just another beer...

Chaotic Fun At The Essex River Race

Shortly before the start of the late-great Rose Arts Road Race several years ago, a 10.47-mile running competition over the hills of Norwich considered one of New England’s toughest courses, my friend Bob and I decided to jog a couple miles...