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My friend Steve Fagin appreciates all that nature has to offer.
Perhaps you're familiar with his column and blog, "The Great Outdoors," in which he chronicles his escapades.
I always enjoy it when our paths intersect, as they did recently in regard to hickory nuts.
Hickory nuts come from hickory trees, which are native to many places, including New London County. The leaves are enjoyed by several species of moth, but the nuts are particularly favored by squirrels, so much so that squirrel hunters often use a cache of them to lure their prey.
As can be discovered in many Internet videos, the squirrel's teeth seem remarkably suited to penetrating the thick, bony exterior. In videos of them eating nuts, they seem so focused as they work their way through the hard shell. Their eyes are blank as they move their jaws from side to side, sorting shell from nut, discarding one with a flick of the tongue and storing the other inside increasingly chubby cheeks.
But it wasn't the squirrels that drew Steve's attention to hickory nuts. It was a neighbor and his wife.
"They were crawling around on their hands and knees" in the backyard, Steve explained. "I thought they'd lost a ring or something."
Instead, they were picking up hickory nuts. It had been a banner year, they said, and the nuts were plentiful. Next I knew, Steve had delivered a bag of the nuts to me along with a brick, a hammer and a challenge: crack them open and extract enough meat to make something delicious.
The nuts are oval, about an inch-and-a-half long, with several ribs running stem to stern. To open them, Steve advised, balance the nut on the brick and whack the pointy end with a hammer. He also offered a cautionary tale.
He had given a bag and the same advice to Rich, another friend who cooks. But Rich had gone rogue. He had roasted the nuts in their shells, thinking that might have made them easier to crack.
Unbeknownst to Rich at the time, it is common for hickory nuts to contain fat, white grubs. When Rich pulled his bounty from the oven, he discovered that along with the nuts he had roasted their inhabitants. The nuts went in the trash and Rich opted out.
I was undeterred. I'm a country girl. If grubs were the only surprise, I was in, but not without some additional research. I Googled "hickory nuts" and found a YouTube video by Kayoteguy, in which he demonstrates hickory nut-cracking. By perching the nut on a good-size boulder and using a rock and two precise hits, Kayoteguy extracts from within its intricate chambers an intact hickory nut.
Piece of cake.
So on a sunny afternoon, I began with the Fagin technique - brick and hammer - to crack this hickory nut dilemma. Not confident in my aim, I held the nut in the grip of pliers as I swung the hammer.
It required a pretty good hit, and the first dozen or so crushed under my blows, leaving nuts and shell nearly impossible to separate. Using a lobster pick, I teased out fragments of meat, occasionally impaling my increasingly tender fingertips. With the next dozen, I took a tip from Kayoteguy. I hunted around and found a stone with a long, flat side, perfect for nut-cracking. It was just the ticket, resulting in less crushing and larger hunks of meat.
Ultimately, my nearly two-hour effort resulted in a generous cup of nut pieces, 2 or 3 cups of shells, and about a tablespoon of grubs.
You couldn't miss them. They were relatively large and when you opened the nut, they'd lift their little brown heads as if to say, "Who turned the light on?" When I found one, I threw the whole nut away.
The shell shrapnel was another story. Shell and nut look very similar. Although I carefully sorted the nut meats three or four times, I doubted they were shell-free. But I forged ahead, using the nuts in my mother's oatmeal cookie recipe. I thought the straightforward dough would provide a good backdrop for the hickory nuts, giving their flavor a chance to shine.
I made a batch, tasted one and indeed, it was redolent with hickory nut, an odd flavor that reminds me of the bold, sweet mustiness of the black walnuts I used to collect in my childhood backyard. The flavor really permeated the cookies, bringing them to a new, delicious level.
On my next bite, I encountered shell. I had planned to share the cookies with Steve and my other colleagues as proof of my success, but in light of the potential for tooth-chipping, crown-breaking and filling-loosening, I now questioned that wisdom. I decided on a compromise: deliver the cookies with a warning to chew cautiously.
My alarm did not deter my fellow journalists, who declared the cookies delicious, the hickory nut flavor intriguing, and the notion of baked goods in the workplace a good one indeed.
But as I watched my friends, mindful of the potential for dental destruction, bite into the cookies and chew, I experienced deja vu. They were so focused, their eyes blank as they moved their jaws from side to side, searching with teeth and tongue for hidden dangers, just like the squirrels in the videos.
Perhaps where hickory nuts are concerned, be you man or beast, it's always advisable to chew cautiously.
Jill Blanchette works at night at The Day. Check out her food blog, Spilling the Beans. Share recipes and comments with her at email@example.com
¾ cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 cups oatmeal
½ cup raisins
1 cup hickory nuts (also delicious with walnuts, pecans or a combination)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease two cookie sheets.
Place shortening and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in mixing bowl) and cream them together. Add the egg, water and vanilla and beat thoroughly until well combined.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda. Once combined, add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix well. Add the oats, raisins and nuts and mix well.
Using two soup spoons, drop spoonfuls onto the greased baking sheets, keeping the dollops of dough about 2 inches apart. (I used a silicone mat, which worked well.)
Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes until cookies are just beginning to brown along the edges. (I usually bake one sheet at a time.) Remove the cookies from the pan immediately and let them cool on a cooling rack.
These cookies are most delicious served warm, right from the oven.