Hard to crack? Understatement

I have a new appreciation for the cost of shelled nuts. Walnuts in particular.  The price of shelled English (aka Persian) is one thing, but go purchase shelled Black Walnuts and woosh, why so much more?  Compare the shelling process and it becomes oh, so apparently clear. Dang, that black walnut shell.  Just ain’t giving up easily what it hides inside. As one friend learned this week, your traditional nutcracker is so not cut out for the job.  A heavy-duty mallet, or the tires on your car make for a better means of freeing the meat of this North American native nut. Or better yet? What looks to be a miniature torture device, or what I call, Oriana’s vice.

Yep, my favorite source for asian pears is also my go to source for the elusive black walnut – Oriana’s Oriental Orchard*. Living in harmony on her orchard with her pear trees, are a grove of wild (let’s be real, native) black walnut trees.  You can buy completely shelled (the spendiest option), whole, or what I see as the best route to go, partially cracked (with afore-mentioned torture device).  And if you do go for a bag of partially cracked (which for me yielded about 2 cups of nut meat) try to complete the shelling process soon after getting the nuts home (yeah, see all the oil stains on the outside of the bag? all that heart healthy oil equals highly perishable)– hunker down with nut cracker and pick, and you can have the distinct and robustly flavored nut meats freed in less than one quarter of a football game (nb. to avoid surprise visit to the dentist, try to pay more attention to the shelling than the game. Just sayin’). Oh, and if you are a real-DIYer don’t throw those cracked shells out, use them to dye cotton or wool. I have a few ‘not-so-white’ t-shirts that are perfect candidates for this kind of project. Stay tuned for the outcome.

Now, back to the edible part. I have been a nut lover my whole life (think I have definitely helped keep an old school chum’s family nut business afloat).  Eaten as is, or in a fav recipe, whether sweet or savory, starter, side, main course or dessert, the addition of walnuts just do something to heighten the dish.  Thank goodness for no nut allergies here, and so sorry for any of you that do have nut allergies and are not able to enjoy their flavor and health boosts.

Most of us are accustomed to the milder English walnut. But make the switch to the livelier black walnut and wow, your dish is elevated to an entirely new level, especially if you take the time to toast the nuts first. Serious wow.  And now that I have this week’s bag of black walnuts shelled and ready to go, I am torn as which way to go with them: simply toss into a green or wild rice salad, whirl into a red pepper walnut dip or a maple walnut ice cream, toss atop a honey-drizzled Greek yoghurt, or breakout the KitchenAid, butter and sugar, and whip up a honey-walnut cake, or my favorite rugelach cookie recipe. Hummmmm…..Well in the spirit of keeping it simple how about an easy on hand starter that will impress your holiday guests, Walnut Blue Cheese Coins (aka crackers).

Walnut-Blue Cheese Coins
adapted from Nov 1997, Martha Stewart Living
(makes approximately 30 crackers)

1 cup toasted black walnuts
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons cold butter, cut up into small pieces
1/4 pound blue cheese
kosher salt to sprinkle

In a food processor, finely grind 1/2 cup walnuts. Add  flour, salt, pepper, and baking soda; pulse to just combined. Add butter, pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add crumbled cheese; pulse until the dough comes together, approximately 15 seconds.

Transfer dough to lightly floured surface; divide into two equal parts. Using your hands, roll dough into two 1 1/2-inch diameter logs. Coarsely chop remaining 1/2 C. walnuts; sprinkle over a clean work surface. Roll logs in nuts; wrap each log in plastic wrap; chill until firm, at least 3 hours. (Will keep, wrapped in plastic, for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator and 2 months in the freezer.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice logs into 1/4-inch thick coins. Transfer to ungreased baking sheet; sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Bake for 15 minutes, until centers are firm to touch. Cool on wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

*You can find Oriana’s Oriental Orchard at Green City Market, and the Glenwood Winter Sunday Market

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