OMG: NYC Trees
Pair this red pepper-walnut dip with cubes of salty feta cheese. Lauren Rothman/JW
About two cups
active: 15 min
total: 30 min
Among the many ingredients that the committed home cook takes care to stock his pantry with, nuts — those crispy-crunchy, flavor-packed little kernels of heart-healthy oils — stand out as one of the most essential. Whether your preferences lie with pistachios, almonds, pecan or pine, there are few dishes that can’t be bettered by a sprinkling of rich, toasty nuts. The nut kingdom encompasses more than 50 varieties that grow on six continents, and these fruits have long been treasured as a luxury ingredient, a fact attested to by nuts’ presence in many of the splendid still lifes painted by the Old Masters. Today, nuts remain very dear — in fact, behind spices and oils, they’re the most expensive ingredient found in the average kitchen. They may be delicious, but with prices ranging from about $8 per pound for California walnuts all the way up to a whopping $50 per pound for Italian-grown pine nuts, shopping for nuts can be a drag.
Fortuitously, the adventurous cook need not make a trip to the grocery store to prepare for pesto-making or biscotti-baking. For many of us here in the United States, this is peak nut season: the time between late August and early November that many wild-growing nut trees such as beechnut, chestnut and oak yield their their hard-shelled bounty. While you might not know what to do with beechnuts (peel them, saute them in butter and sprinkle them with salt) or acorns (roast them, grind them and use them as a protein-rich flour), almost any cook or baker would have quite a few ideas for black walnuts, a close cousin of more-familiar English walnuts that boast a bold, earthy flavor but still substitute well for their milder relative. With a range extending from the northeast down through Georgia and west across Wisconsin and Minnesota, black walnut’s ubiquity makes the chances pretty high that you’re within walking distance of a fruiting tree. And one man thinks that you should grab a bucket, find a public park and forage your own nuts — instead of calling up Fresh Direct.
Jerry Henkin, 71, has been nuts about nuts for nearly 30 years. An avid forager, dedicated researcher and a sort of Johnny Appleseed of nuts who encourages friends and enthusiasts to plant their own nut trees, Henkin is the in-house librarian at the Northern Nut Growers Association, a Connecticut-based group that promotes the advancement of knowledge about nut trees. A resident of Yonkers, Henkin was inducted into the nut appreciation society when a new neighbor and fellow community gardener pointed out something interesting.
“We were walking home from the garden one evening when this woman showed me a tree right nearby,” Henkins recalled recently. “‘Do you know what that is?’ she asked. ‘It’s a black walnut tree.’ I was intrigued by that.”
That initial insight led Henkins to dive deep, joining the NNGA and learning all he could about the history of nut trees in North America.
“About 150 years ago, it was very common to plant edible nut trees,” Henkin said. “People had them in their backyards.”
Over time, however, some of that knowledge faded as Americans relied less on the bounty of their own gardens and more on the incredible variety found in expanding neighborhood grocery stores. Today, Henkins said, most people “just don’t know what these things are or where they come from.”
Henkins wants to change that. Each fall, he visits Central Park, Westchester’s Rockefeller State Park and land owned by family and friends to harvest the butternuts, hickory nuts and black walnuts that he’ll dry, roast and use throughout the winter months. And he suggests that non-nut experts do the same.
Armed with a little research, anyone would be able to identify the black walnut tree, a species that Henkins suggests as a starting point for the amateur nut forager because it is so prolific. In New York City, black walnuts can be found in Prospect and Central Parks, as well as Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and parks across Westchester and the Hudson Valley. With narrow fringes of leaves that turn yellow and drop in the fall — revealing clusters of one-and-one-half-to two-inch-diameter green globes—the tree is easy to recognize. When the green fruits that encase the walnuts fall — a process that’s occurring across New York State right now—the husks turn black. That’s the time to grab them up before the squirrels do, smash them open with a well-booted foot, extract the nuts, wash them clean, and let them dry out for a good two weeks to a month. Then, you’re ready to roast, toast or incorporate the nuts into your favorite recipes.
One excellent way to enjoy any type of walnut is in muhammarra, a vibrant roasted red pepper and walnut dip that originates in Syria and is a common feature on the bountiful Israeli breakfast table. Simple to prepare, this dip gets its natural sweetness from the heat-kissed peppers and a bit of smokiness from Aleppo pepper (if you have it) or hot paprika (if you don’t). It’s wonderful spread on crackers or pita or as a dip for carrot sticks or cubes of salty feta cheese. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try to substitute at least half of the walnuts with your own foraged black walnuts. In doing so, you’d be participating in the age-old tradition of cracking nuts for dinner: As Henkin said, it used to be commonplace to hand children a handful of walnuts and a hammer, telling them, “We need a cup for the cake tonight.”