True wealth, I believe, is a mature Persian walnut tree, to feed you, your family, and your friends through the winter with tasty kernels rich in fat and protein, and to provide green nuts in early summer for liqueurs, preserves, and pickles.
Sadly, I am walnut-poor. I planted a walnut tree on the farm but had to take it out so it wouldn’t shade the solar panels. Here in town, the squirrels keep trying to plant walnuts in my little garden, but I always pull up the seedlings, because if I had a mature walnut tree I wouldn’t be able to grow much else.
Fortunately, walnuts often come free to anyone who doesn’t mind picking them up off the ground. I used to collect from trees along country roads and one in a middle-school playground. Now my husband and I gather walnuts while walking around town, where they fall in the street and on the sidewalk, or in yards when the homeowner doesn’t mind. We dry them on the pool table in the basement, crack them in front of the fire on winter evenings, and eat them every day in our breakfast bread and at holiday time in various kinds of cookies.
Once in a while I crave candied walnuts. Then I remember that most candied nuts are overwhelmingly sweet, because they are more candy than nuts. But one day I thought I’d try candying walnuts so that they would turn out like kettle corn, with just a little sugar and some salt, too. I didn’t want to end up tossing nuts all over the kitchen—making kettle corn without a mess requires a very, very deep kettle—so I developed a method that uses water to make a syrup. Basically, I stir hot nuts into a little hot caramel and then separate the individual nuts. Walnuts candied this way are a fine treat for the holiday table, and they shouldn’t break a tooth or pull out a filling.
I like this treatment even more with pecans, the walnuts of the South. The method should work well for hazelnuts and almonds, too.
Candied Nuts, Kettle-Corn Style
1½ cups walnut or pecan meats 1½ tablespoons water 3 tablespoons sugar 3/8 teaspoon fine salt
Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spread the nuts in a baking pan, and place the pan in the heated oven. Roast the nuts for about 30 minutes, until they have darkened a bit and begun to smell toasty.
While the nuts roast, pour the water into a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel skillet. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a counter close by.
When the nuts are ready, turn off the oven, but leave the baking pan inside. Heat the skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Raise the heat to medium, and set the hot pan of nuts by the stove. When the syrup begins to color, remove the skillet from the burner. Swirl the skillet a bit as the residual heat caramelizes the syrup. If the syrup isn’t caramelizing completely, set the skillet over low heat briefly. As soon as you have a uniformly colored syrup, add the hot nuts. With a wooden spoon or spatula, turn the nuts in the syrup until they are all coated. Then turn them out on the parchment paper, spreading them with your spoon or spatula.
Let the nuts cool for a minute or two, and then separate the individual nuts with your fingers. As soon as the nuts have cooled to room temperature, store them in an airtight container.
I am lucky to have Carol Porter’s chestnut farm nearby. After all, the whole United States has fewer than a thousand chestnut farms, totaling a little over 3,700 acres. Americans grow only 1 percent of the world’s chestnuts, while importing about five times the tonnage we produce. We would grow and eat many more chestnuts than that, I believe, if we could remember how good they are—even though they are a bit of a pain to prepare.
Americans once venerated the chestnut—the tree, at least, if not the nut itself. The American chestnut grew straight and tall, to more than 100 feet, and it dominated the forests of eastern North America. Its straight grain and resistance to rot made it ideal for log cabins—especially for foundation logs—and for poles, posts, masts, floors, and railroad ties. The nuts fed domestic pigs and cattle as well as people and wildlife.
By 1950, however, the American chestnut was a fading memory. In just a few decades, a fungus imported with Asian chestnut trees had killed nearly every American chestnut. This disaster was worse than the stock market crash of 1929, Carol says, in that it devastated the lives of the masses rather than harming a relatively few rich people.
Carol doesn’t actually favor American chestnuts. She acquired her American trees by mistake, after a nursery owner grafted European chestnuts (Castanea sativa) to American (C. dentata) seedlings. The grafts failed, and the rootstock grew up slender and tall among the wide, round canopies of the Chinese and European chestnuts.
Carol does like Chinese chestnuts (C. mollissima), which grow particularly well in her hillside orchard and reach only about 40 feet in height.
Yet all of the nuts Carol sells come from another chestnut variety, the Colossal, a hybrid of European and Japanese chestnuts (C. crenata) bred in California in the early twentieth century. The Colossal is vulnerable to chestnut blight, but that disease has never become an epidemic on the West Coast, with our dry summers and lack of native chestnuts. The American chestnut thrives here for the same reason.
Recently Carol led me and a few friends through her orchard. As Carol talked, the rest of us filled our pockets with American and Chinese chestnuts, which otherwise would have fed Carol’s pigs and goats, before Carol led us to an outbuilding to buy bags of washed and dried Colossals. Our petty theft allowed us to do a taste comparison later, at home, after roasting some of the nuts. The small, rather flat American chestnuts are said to be sweetest, but Robert, Renata, and I all found them more nutty than sweet. The Chinese chestnuts, bigger and rounder than the Americans, were sweetest. The very big Colossals—often an inch and a half across—were least sweet and least nutty. They tasted starchy, like yellow sweet potatoes, and mealy. European chestnuts, after all, have only 4 percent fat, in comparison to 10 percent fat in American chestnuts. Although Carol’s customers want the biggest chestnuts available and so buy only Colossals, we preferred the American and Chinese nuts.
All of the chestnuts we brought from Carol’s farm required some work in shelling and peeling. A chestnut has not only an outer shell but also a thin inner skin. Unless you are a hog, the skin as well as the shell is best removed before eating. To keep the nut from exploding, you slit the shell on the flat side once or twice, without cutting the flesh, before cooking the nut. Depending on how you plan to use the nuts, you might boil them after slitting, but for eating on their own chestnuts are traditionally roasted. Renata remembered her Swiss brother’s advice: Soaking slit chestnuts in water for as long as overnight makes it easier to remove the skin after roasting. To Renata and to me, an overnight soak seems overlong for fresh chestnuts, but we both found that a 15- to 30-minute soak really does seem to loosen the skins.
Oddly, chestnut recipes are scant in old American cookbooks. Mrs. Lincoln, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1884), has recipes for chestnut stuffing and chestnut sauce, both intended for poultry, and The Settlement Cookbook (I have the 1976 edition) combines chestnuts with cabbage, with brussels sprouts, and with prunes, and also includes recipes for chestnut croquettes, chestnut ice cream (yum!), and “chestnut dessert.” But, perhaps because the nuts were just too cheap and commonplace, many old American cookbooks have no chestnut recipes at all, and most of the recipes I did find were identified as French or Italian.
I knew what I wanted to do with my chestnuts, and I knew how I wanted to do it. I would make a simple chestnut soup. The first chestnut soup probably came from France, source of so many purées, but no matter. The soup is sweet and smooth and not too rich, and it will satisfy you even if you forego bread with the meal. It is a very good use especially for Colossal chestnuts or any European variety.
I garnished my soup with a bit of chopped parsley, which provided an interesting contrast in color, texture, and flavor. I would have used finer, paler celery leaves instead, if I’d had any on hand.
1½ pounds fresh chestnuts, in their shells 4 cups chicken stock 3 tablespoons butter 4 ounces chopped yellow or white onion 1½ cups whole milk ½ teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg ½ teaspoon fresh-ground white pepper Salt 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped celery or parsley leaves
Slit each chestnut once crosswise, or twice in the form of a cross, on the flat side. Put the chestnuts into a bowl, cover them with water, and let them soak for 15 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Lay the chestnuts slit-side up in a roasting pan. Roast them in the hot oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off their shells and as much of their skins as you can. If a nut crumbles while you’re trying to skin it, scrape the flesh out of the skin with a spoon. Combine all of the meats in a saucepan with the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and let it continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
While the chestnuts simmer, melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the onion, and sauté it until it is soft.
When the chestnuts have finished simmering, put them and their cooking liquid into a blender jar. Add the sautéed onion, and blend the mixture to a purée. Pour the purée into the saucepan. Add the milk, nutmeg, and white pepper. Stir, and add salt to taste. Heat the soup just to a simmer.
Serve the soup hot, garnished with the celery or parsley leaves.
For recipes for chestnut cream and preserved chestnuts in syrup, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.
Before I used my Hall’s Hardy almonds, I thought, even though they didn’t taste bitter I should perhaps try to purge them of any amygdalin, the bitter compound that converts to hydrogen cyanide. I could find no authoritative instructions in how to do this, but plenty of informal advice was at hand. In one Internet forum, a man from Lebanon said his family would soak bitter almonds in many changes of water before eating them. A Spaniard advised soaking bitter almonds in vinegar for a day. Heat is also said to destroy amygdalin, although I doubted the efficacy of dry-heating, since the bitter nuts from Trader Joe’s and Costco had been roasted. For other foods containing cyanogenic compounds, such as cassava and bamboo shoots, scientific studies have found grating, soaking, fermentation, steaming, and exposure to air all to be effective in reducing the toxin, by as much as 99 percent.
I would have subjected my almonds to a hot-water bath regardless of any concern about amygdalin. Marzipan is supposed to be pure white, not freckled with brown bits of skin. Usually I blanch almonds by dropping them into boiling water and leaving them for a minute before draining them. When they are cool, I pop each nut out of its skin by pressing with thumb and forefinger at the broad end. This time I poured boiling water over the nuts and left them to soak for 30 minutes. The water turned milky but didn’t taste bitter. The nuts, still highly perfumed, released their skins easily, although because the skins, like the nuts, were mostly in small pieces, I didn’t try to remove every last brown bit. The naked kernels were white—a barely creamy white, much whiter than skinned California almonds.
I could have made a tiny mound of marzipan with only these nuts, by grinding them in my little hand-cranked nut grinder. But my Hall’s nuts were powerfully flavorful, perhaps too flavorful to use on their own. Traditionally, only a few bitter almonds are included in each batch of marzipan. Because I like round numbers, I decided to combine my 2.5 ounces of Hall’s Hardy almonds (weighed before soaking) with 13.5 ounces of commercially grown California almonds, for a total of 1 pound almonds.
I skinned the California almonds in the usual way, by putting them into a pot of boiling water for a minute, draining them, and then squeezing each one from its skin. I then ground all the nuts, a few handfuls at a time, in a miniature food processor, the kind run on the motor of a stick blender. The meal looked like very fine, fresh-cooked couscous. Some people report trouble with this process; they add water, rosewater, or orange flower water to keep the almonds from turning to an oily paste. But my Hall’s Hardy almonds had absorbed quite a lot of water, and I had ground the California almonds while damp instead of taking the trouble to dry them. I encountered no sign of pastiness.
Next I had to decide how much sugar to add. Various writers say that marzipan contains less sugar than almond paste does; the latter is firmer, for forming into the shapes of animals and fruits and so on, whereas the latter is softer, for using in baked goods. Others say the opposite—that marzipan has more sugar than almond paste. I make no distinction between the two, because recipes for marzipan itself are so variable. One recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, for example, calls for twice the weight of sugar as almonds; a second recipe calls for half the weight of sugar as almonds. I decided to use what seems to be the most common ratio: one part sugar, by weight, to one part almonds.
Now, how best to add the sugar? I once watched an embarrassed chef attempt to make marzipan by simply grinding granulated sugar and blanched almonds together in a big food processor. The sugar would not dissolve. Some cooks use confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated sugar, but I didn’t want my marzipan to taste of cornstarch. Added liquid, such as rosewater, probably helps to dissolve the sugar as well as to prevent oiliness. I love the flavor of roses, but to me it has no place in marzipan. I figured I could use superfine sugar and hope that the moisture remaining in my ground almonds would dissolve it, but I didn’t want to take that chance.
So I made a heavy syrup instead. I slowly heated two parts sugar and one part water until the sugar dissolved, and then I boiled the syrup to thread stage before adding it to the almond meal. I stirred the hot syrup into the meal; there seemed no need for the usual kneading.
At this point most people would add some almond extract, some other flavoring, or both. But on tasting my marzipan I found that the level of bitter-almond flavor was perfect. I didn’t need any almond extract, and I certainly didn’t want to cover up the natural bitter-almond flavor of my marzipan with rosewater, orange flower water, or vanilla extract.
The marzipan was quite soft. I knew it would firm up as it cooled, and then I could cut it or mold it into shapes and let the pieces dry in a cool oven. Because I didn’t plan to use the marzipan right away, however, I decided to try another method of drying it out: I heated it, turning it often, in an iron skillet over a burner set on low heat. Then I let the marzipan cool for an hour and I divided the still-warm mass into two 1-pound loaves. When they had cooled further, I stored one in the freezer and the other in the fridge.
Here is my complete recipe:
Marzipan with (or without) Hall’s Hardy Almonds
For a stronger bitter-almond flavor, use a higher proportion of Hall’s Hardy to California almonds—say, 4 ounces Hall’s to 12 ounces California almonds.
If you’d like to flavor your marzipan with rosewater or orange flower water, spread your blanched almonds on a towel and let them dry thoroughly before grinding them. Add the liquid during the grinding or incorporate it afterward.
You can use this recipe with ordinary almonds alone, if you like, by starting with a pound of almonds and, at the end, adding almond extract to taste.
2.5 ounces Hall’s Hardy almonds 13.5 ounces California almonds 2 cups sugar 1 cup water
Blanch the almonds for 1 minute in a pot of boiling water. Drain the almonds, and squeeze off their skins. (If you’re concerned about amygdalin in the Hall’s Hardy almonds, do as I did: Cover them with boiling water, and drain them only after 30 minutes of soaking.)
In a food processor, grind the blanched almonds in batches to a fine meal. Collect the meal in a bowl.
In a saucepan, heat the sugar and water slowly, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the syrup until it spins a thread in a glass of cold water, or to about 232 degrees F.
Pour the syrup into the almond meal, stirring thoroughly.
Heat a large iron skillet over the lowest heat setting. Add the marzipan. Stirring, gradually raise the heat as needed until you can see tiny bubbles evaporate on the bottom of the pan; from a distance this looks like a vanishing white haze. Don’t let the pan get any hotter; you don’t want to caramelize the marzipan. Continue turning it in the pan for about 10 minutes, until the mass is noticeably firmer.
Remove the pan from the heat, and let the marzipan cool.
Form the marzipan into two loaves. Wrap them in plastic wrap or first in parchment paper and then in foil. Store the loaves in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to use them.
I finally got around to cracking last fall’s crop of Hall’s Hardy almonds, my biggest in the five years since I planted the tree. I had more than half a cup of nutmeats!
Hall’s Hardy is actually a peach-almond cross. But because it blooms late, resists fungal disease, and self-pollinates, it is considered the only almond variety suitable for growing in the Pacific Northwest. Or so it was considered until recently, when Jim Gilbert of One Green World introduced several Ukrainian almond varieties, all of which are said to have the same virtues as Hall’s Hardy, plus more: They are true almonds, with soft or semisoft shells. But the Ukrainian varieties are yet unproven in Oregon. For now, I’m grateful for my tiny almond harvest, especially because these almonds have something the soft-shelled true almonds almost certainly lack: the lovely flavor of almond extract—that is, the flavor of bitter almond.
Cracking a Hall’s Hardy almond is problematic. Once freed of its husk, the nut looks like a peach pit, and it’s just as thick and hard. I tried using a kind of nutcracker, meant for walnuts and pecans, that surrounds the whole nut; as you press the two arms together, the hinged central cup hugs and squeezes the nut inside until the nut breaks at the seam. I cracked two or three nuts with this cracker, and the small kernels, to my delight, turned out whole. And then the hinge sprang.
So I got out a hammer, an old bread board, and a dishtowel I’d consigned to the rag bin. With the hammer method it’s important not to use a board or a towel that you care about, because you’re bound to damage both. You place a few nuts at a time on the board, lay the towel over, and then bang, bang away. You remove the towel and collect all the nut pieces, most of them itsy-bitsy. And then you toss out a mountain of thick shell pieces and sweep the stray ones from underfoot before they damage your floor or your flesh.
By this point some of you dear readers no doubt feel alarm, and not about the dangers of stepping on nut shells. It’s my mention of the flavor of bitter almond, right? The essential oil of bitter almond is nearly pure benzaldehyde, a chemical that signifies the presence of amygdalin, which enzymes in the intestines convert to prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide. And cyanide kills. Some scientists say that eating 50 bitter almonds will kill an adult; a child may die after eating only 5 to 10. Other stone-fruit kernels—apricots, peaches, and plums—contain the same flavor, the same chemicals, and the same deadly power.
Despite its toxicity, amygdalin has a long history as a medicine. In China, for example, apricot pits have been traditionally used for coughs and constipation. But amounts taken were probably miniscule before the 1950s, when amygdalin in the form of laetrile, or so-called vitamin B17, became a folk treatment for cancer. In the United States, the popularity of laetrile surged after 1972, when a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reported that the drug inhibited secondary tumors in mice. Although other researchers were unable to confirm these results, desperate cancer patients traveled to Mexico to buy laetrile or got their amygdalin directly from stone-fruit pits—especially from apricots, whose kernels, even richer than bitter almonds in amygdalin, are used as a food flavoring in Turkey, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. At least a few children who might have survived cancer succumbed to laetrile poisoning instead.
Because some people will apparently force down the bitterest pill or nut if they think it’s good for them, bitter almonds cannot legally be sold in the United States. You can buy “pure” almond extract, which may be made from apricot or peach pits, or almond paste, probably flavored with apricot pits if not a synthetic imitation, but you can’t sell the almonds.
Some businesses do sell them, however, and those businesses include Trader Joe’s and Costco. Or so say consumers of Marcona almonds from Spain. Apparently, a bitter almond or two appear now and then in a bag of roasted Marconas, a variety with rounded kernels that are especially rich in oil. One bite of a bitter Marcona leads to spitting and gagging and a foul taste in the mouth that lasts the whole day through. Or so say these startled consumers.
This never happens with California almonds. You might occasionally taste a rancid California almond, if your nuts have been stored for too long. A rancid nut may make you spit and gag, but rancidity is not the same as bitterness.
The problem with Spanish almonds is something biologists call xenia, after a Greek word for hospitality. Xenia happens when the pollen of a plant of one genetic strain affects the seeds and fruit of the fertilized plant. This effect is distinct from the effect the pollen has on the next generation. Xenia is the reason gardeners plant their sweet corn far away from any field corn, popcorn, or ornamental corn, even if they don’t plan to save seed for planting in a subsequent year. The pollen of any of these other types of corn could turn the sweet corn starchy. In the same way, ears of white corn pollinated by yellow corn will turn out yellow, and the kernels of popcorn pollinated by sweet corn will turn out sweet and, probably, shriveled.
In the United States, all our commercial almonds are grown in California, in Central Valley orchards so extensive that beekeepers from all over the country truck in their hives for winter forage (this annual gathering of the hives is largely responsible for the rapid spread of various bee pests and diseases across the continent). Blooming California almond orchards are a lovely sight to see, as you race up or down the interstate, but they are a picture of modern, industrial farming. No doubt Spain, the world’s second largest almond producer, has orchards much like them, but I haven’t seen them. Traveling through Andalusia one winter, I got a different view of almonds in flower. Masses of pale-pink blooms were scattered here and there over the landscape. The almond trees, some small and some towering, marked old fence lines, roads that might have been buried in sand, and other past and present boundaries where the trees had grown up from seedlings and thrived without care. Almonds have been growing here since Roman times. Although bitterness in their nuts is a recessive trait, controlled by a single gene, bitter almond trees dominate in numbers because critters avoid eating their nuts—that is, their seeds—and also, apparently, because sweet almond trees are less tolerant of very dry, sandy soil.
In Spain, sweet almond orchards are mostly planted in damper, coastal areas. But sweet almonds can also grow on irrigated land or on dry land without irrigation if the scions are grafted to bitter almond trees or to peach-almond hybrids. It is in these dryland orchards, I suspect, that xenia happens. The sweet almond flowers are supposed to be fertilized by the pollen of other sweet almond varieties that bloom at the same time and are interplanted in the same orchard. (Self-pollinated varieties are yet a novelty in both Spain and California.) Every once in a while, however, a bee carries pollen from an almond tree growing wild in the fencerow or anywhere else in the vicinity; honeybees, after all, often fly two miles from the hive in search of pollen or nectar. Xenia happens when a bee brings pollen from a wild, bitter almond tree to a sweet almond tree with a recessive allele, that is, an allele—or gene variant—that when matched with another recessive allele will cause bitterness. Marcona almonds, like most of the other varieties grown in both Spain and California, is heterozygous for sweetness. From the flower where the bee deposits pollen, a bitter nut develops.
The more bitter the nut, the more amygdalin it contains. A study of Spanish almonds found amygdalin ranging from 2.16 to 157.44 milligrams per kilogram in nonbitter almonds, 523.50 to 1,772.75 milligrams per kilogram in semibitter almonds, and 33,006.60 to 5,3998.30 milligrams per kilograms in bitter almonds. The least bitter bitter almonds, then, had 210 times as much amygdalin as the most bitter nonbitter almonds. The most bitter bitter almonds had 25,000 times as much amygdalin as the least bitter nonbitter almonds.
Given that my Hall’s Hardy almonds weren’t almonds at all but an interspecies cross, I didn’t know whether to classify them as nonbitter, semibitter, or bitter. (I will continue to call my almonds almonds, however, because genetists have determined that through millennia of development peaches and almonds have crossed repeatedly.) Because of their strong aroma of benzaldehyde, I figured that the Hall’s Hardies must contain more than a little amygdalin. I found an old gardening publication from Cornell University that recommended against growing either Hall’s Hardy almonds or another hybrid variety, called Ridenhower, because of the nuts’ bitterness and possible toxicity. But I could taste barely any bitterness over the strong benzaldehyde flavor of my nuts, and I tend to be sensitive to bitterness. They tasted so good, in fact—so much more interesting than California almonds!—that I would have tossed all the kernels into my mouth if I hadn’t had other plans for them.
My plan: I would make my own, no-flavor-added marzipan.
No, I haven’t been to Moldova lately. In fact, I’ve never been to Moldova. But my daughter went, in May. She knew exactly what sort of pictures I’d like to see. Our Moldovan pal Cristina helped me interpret the photos.
Beside the lettuce in a Moldovan market are grape leaves ready for stuffing. They are simply laid flat, sprinkled with salt, and then rolled together for sale.
Here are whole brine-pickled watermelons, and slices of pickled watermelon. Apparently I’ve neglected to report on my own adventures in pickling whole watermelon, so I’ll do that soon. The watermelon flesh loses its crispness and becomes . . . I don’t want to say slimy. A nicer term might be tomato-like.
Cabbage is pickled whole, too. Here the leaves are separated and laid in a mound, ready for making sarmale—or, “in the folk,” Cristina says, galush. These long-simmered rolls filled with rice and ground meat are the Moldovan version of the Turkish sarma.
Brine-pickled tomatoes, like other pickles, are sold drained. You take home as many as you’d like in a plastic bag.
On the right side of this picture are brined stuffed peppers. Though I included a Turkish version of this pickle in The Joy of Pickling, I haven’t made brined stuffed peppers in ages. Now I’m inspired to make some this fall. Most amazing here are the enormous brined stuffed eggplants, at left. I don’t think I’ve ever fermented stuffed eggplants, and I can’t conceive of using—or eating!—such huge ones.
Some plums are sun-dried; others are smoke-dried. The smoke imparts a distinct flavor that I can only imagine. In the right photo above is an oven for smoke-drying plums.
In the picture above, a woman is selling an assortment of homemade pickles and relishes. You don’t see the jar labels because there aren’t any. The jars are in various sizes and shapes because they formerly contained various factory-made foods. But don’t her pickles look good?
At the top right in the same photo are plastic soda bottles filled with borsch acru, fermented from wheat bran, bread (preferably dark and a bit stale), salt, and sometimes lovage, for flavor. You use this sour liquid in zama, a chicken soup with vermicelli, or in borsch. “Once you use up the borsch acru,” says Cristina, “don’t throw away the bran. It can be used again.”
Here is a Moldovan well and, purposely placed right beside it, a shrine. In Moldova, wells are still sacred places, as they should be everywhere.
Finally, on the Orthodox Easter table is a bottle of cognac. In Moldova cognac is not fancy French brandy but green-walnut liqueur, like the Italian nocino. Have you picked your own green walnuts this year? If you can still pierce the walnuts to the center with a needle, it’s not too late to make green-walnut liqueur.
Here in western Oregon, late June to mid-July is the time to pick green walnuts. You don’t need your own tree; just walk the country roads for a while and look up, into the great green canopy of an old tree that somehow survived the destruction, by storm or bulldozer, of a once-lucrative orchard, or shaded a farmhouse long since crumbled or burned. If you’re unsure the tree is a walnut—English, not black—kick the dirt at your feet, and uncover an old half shell or a whole nut, speckled with mold. Scan the branches for bright-green fruits, oval and no more than two inches long. If the tree is at the edge of a grass or grain field, with no occupied house nearby, the farmer is almost surely absentee. He would be happy to have you take some nuts, and probably the rest of the tree with them. Fill your pockets. Promise the tree you’ll be back come fall, to pick mature nuts off the ground.
Hold a nut to your nose as you walk, to inhale the delicious resinous aroma—a cross, to my nose, between lime and eucalyptus. Too bad a green walnut isn’t edible, not in its natural state. But you can make it so, provided the nut hasn’t yet developed a hard shell. To be sure you’ve harvested in time, pierce one of the nuts with a needle when you get home. You should be able too easily push the needle to the center.
Before eating the nuts, you’ll want to soak out their bitterness in multiple changes of water. Then you can either pickle them or preserve them in syrup. Pickled walnuts are, for me, interesting at best, but I love the spicy, syrupy, chewy preserves, especially for the way the peeled green fruits take on the brain-like shape of mature, hulled walnuts. The Joy of Pickling includes a recipe for pickled walnuts, and The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves has one for green walnut preserves.
You don’t need to soak your walnuts if you plan to drink them—that is, to drink in their bitter taste and perfume in an alcoholic beverage. You need only about two dozen green walnuts to make a liter of green walnut liqueur. Called liqueur de noix by the French, licor de nueces verdes by Spaniards, orahovac by Croats, and, most famously, nocino or nocillo by Italians, the liqueur is made by simply steeping fresh, unhusked green walnuts with a few other flavorings in alcohol.
My recipe is much like most others, except that I’ve used honey in place of the usual refined sugar. Occasional additions are vanilla beans (perhaps to imitate the effect of aging in oak, which is sometimes done for commercial walnut liqueurs), orange peel, and walnut leaves. The alcohol can be in the form of Everclear, brandy, marc, or eau de vie instead of vodka.
Green Walnut Liqueur
1 pound green walnuts (about 24) 1 3-inch cinnamon stick 6 cloves Zest of 1 lemon, in strips 1½ cups honey 1 liter vodka
Wearing gloves so your hands don’t blacken, crack each walnut by smacking it with the side of a heavy knife or cleaver. Don’t worry if some of the nuts break into pieces. Put the nuts into a 2-quart jar along with the cinnamon, cloves, and lemon zest, and pour the honey over. Add the vodka, close the jar tightly, and shake it briefly. Wash your cutting board immediately so the walnut juice doesn’t blacken it.
Every day, shake the jar or stir its contents. This will not only help the honey to dissolve but also turn the nuts so that contact with air will eventually blacken them all over. When this happens, you can put the jar in a cupboard. The liquid will turn black, and the walnuts will sink to the bottom.
At least two months after mixing the ingredients, filter the liquid through muslin (last year I took three and a half months to get around to this, but no matter). The liqueur will be as black as strong coffee, with a slight greenish tinge. Funnel the liqueur into bottles, close them tightly, and store them in a dark place as long as you like. Many people say that green walnut liqueur is best after a year’s aging.
“It tastes like Christmas,” two of my children told me, on separate occasions, upon first tasting green walnut liqueur. Have the liqueur in winter as an aperitif or nightcap, perhaps with milk or cream, or dilute it with white wine for a warm-weather drink.
The French often add wine at the start. The following recipe comes from my daughter’s friend Tanya, who teaches at a professional school for cooks in Brittany.
Tanya’s recipe calls for the equivalent of three bottles plus about a cup of white wine. You might round off the amount to three bottles. Again, you might use another sort of liquor, such as brandy or vodka, rather than eau de vie in the narrow sense of alcool blanc.
Aperitif aux Noix
20 green walnuts 2½ liters dry white wine ½ liter eau de vie 2/3 cup sugar 1 cinnamon stick
In a gallon jar, combine all the ingredients. Stir, and close the jar tightly. Let it sit for two months, stirring from time to time.
Filter the liquid, taste it, and add a little sugar, if you like. Funnel the liquid into bottles, and close them securely. “Conservation excellente,” says Tanya.
I found these at Barbur World Foods, a Portland neighborhood grocery–cum–Mediterranean specialty market, where green almonds make their appearance every spring. At the stage you see here the almond kernel is hard but still moist, rather like a shell bean (think of edamame—soybeans—briefly boiled in their pods, or cooked fresh fava beans). The nut has a pale skin that easily peels away with the fingers. You might add a few of the kernels to a jar of apricot or peach jam, or sauté them in a little olive oil and eat them sprinkled with salt. Or enjoy them just as they are, for their mild, pleasant vegetable flavor, enhanced perhaps with the perfume of bitter almond, which I tasted in the batch I bought last year but not, for some reason, in this year’s.
At an earlier stage of greenness, the kernel is a translucent gel and the fruit is edible whole. At this point the green almond, like a green walnut, can be pickled in vinegar or preserved in syrup. I hope I’ll be able to experiment with green almond pickles and preserves in a few years, when my newly planted Hall’s Hardy almond tree (a cross between a peach and an almond) grows up.