While out for a stroll the other day I came upon my neighbors, Pam
and Gino, crawling on hands and knees by the side of the road.
"What did you lose?" I asked.
"Nothing," Gino replied. "But look at what we found."
They both had big bags filled with nuts.
"Hickories," Gino explained. "You gotta get 'em before the squirrels."
I didn't want to horn in on their territory, so set out on trails
behind my house where hickory trees abound. They're easy to identify, with rough, sometimes shaggy bark, depending on the variety, and long, slender, finger-like leaves (in scientific terms: pinnately compound).
The trees may be readily recognizable, especially the shagbark, but spotting the nuts are even simpler, since they're about the size of golf balls and encased in green hulls that often turn brown..
This is prime time for gathering, and you may want to wear a
hard hat – I've been conked more than once.
This evidently also is a banner year for hickory nuts, which are especially productive on a three-year cycle. Now that I'm focused on finding them while out running, biking or even driving – I keep a bag for collecting them in my car – they seem to be everywhere.
I also perfected a collecting method that beats crawling, modeled after clamming.
I walk around the base of a tree and feel the nuts with my feet.
Then I bend down, pick them up and toss them into a sack. In only 15
minutes or so the other afternoon I picked up about five pounds of
nuts from just one tree. Since then I've been on a tear and have lost track of how many I've gathered.
The outer hull usually peels away readily, leaving a round, light
brown nut with a shell as hard as obsidian.
After you remove the hull, let the nuts dry for a few days.
Then comes the fun part: smashing them open. Hickory nuts are
tough buggers and it's a wonder that squirrels or any animal, for that
matter, can feast on them.
A 1980 article in Mother Earth News, and other sources I tracked down online, recommends placing a nut on a brick or sidewalk and hitting it with a hammer. This takes practice, and I pulverized the first several nuts I struck, but after a while I became more proficient. I'd suggest wearing protective glasses, or at least putting the nuts in a cloth sack or under a towel to cut down on shrapnel. – some errant sharp pieces will fly 20 feet.
Then, once the shells are cracked open, don't expect to simply shake the nuts out like peanuts, or even walnuts. You still have to pry
the meat out with a nut pick – an awl will do – or a knifepoint. Watch those fingers.
The reward, though, is a rich, buttery nut, rich in protein and
oils that can be roasted, munched on as a snack or substituted for any recipe that calls for nuts, especially pecans.
I've already bribed a trio of food-fanatical colleagues at The Day, Jenna Cho, Jill Blanchette and Rich Swanson, with bags of my harvest, with the understanding they will bake some tasty treats that I might sample.
Rich looked at the bulging bag and asked, "Are you going to shell them?"
"In your dreams," I replied..
So now I've added hickories to my list of trees I prefer not to
cut down for firewood, even though they burn super-hot.
By the way, don't toss away the broken shells, especially if you
have a fireplace or woodstove. They throw off plenty of BTUS and also exude a heady aroma savored by barbecue aficionados.
One last bit of advice. You not only have to beat the squirrels,
which are out in force now to store food for winter, but you must stay
ahead of the falling leaves that will soon bury the bounty. So don't
delay – it's one more excuse to head for the woods at one of the best
times of the year.
Oh, and don't forget to put on an international orange vest. Now
is also the season that people are hunting for things other than
Happy gathering, and bon appétit.