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At the Chef’s Table: Black walnuts, and a homecoming in the woods

Paul Fehribach pays homage his Indianupbringing with rich black walnut sorghum pie. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

Paul Fehribach pays homage to his Indiana upbringing with a rich black walnut and sorghum pie. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 10, 2011 8:03AM

One of the joys that I miss year to year since I chose to be a chef is the fall of nuts in the woods that comes with the first frost.

Of course, the nuts are still there in the woods I used to roam, but the season tends to keep me in the kitchen these days.

If you get the opportunity to forage for nuts, do. Whether you harvest your own, buy them at the farmers market or in the store, there is no disputing that nuts are a nutritional powerhouse, and delicious raw or prepared in a variety of ways.

As a child, I never realized how lucky I was, growing up in southern Indiana with its extensive forests, in a family of farmers and country folk. We spent a lot of time in the woods — hunting mushrooms in spring, fishing all summer — and we boys grew up looking forward to the day we’d get to go on our first squirrel and deer hunts in the fall.

We had to be 8 to go on a squirrel hunt and 12 to go on a deer hunt. It seemed like we’d never grow old enough to head out on a real hunt. In the meantime, we kept ourselves busy in other parts of the woods, playing games and also learning, rather unwittingly, to forage.

The most distinctive smell in the woods during autumn is that of fallen nuts. Mixed with the scent of fallen and decaying leaves and timber, it is homecoming for me. Since we were usually occupied with our games, we often didn’t realize nut season was upon us until someone stepped on a ripened walnut and the scent of the forest filled the air. That was the signal to gather.

Walnuts and hickory nuts grow wild all over the eastern deciduous forest of the United States, so if you like the idea of having fun gathering really delicious food that’s free but for the time, ask around and you might be surprised to find walnuts and hickory nuts nearby. The best time to look is right now, after frost but before December, by which time our little furry friends will have squirreled them away.

Hickory nuts fall from trees embedded in an egg-shaped hull, with four scores along the sides lengthwise, like seams on a football. They were my absolute favorite. Black walnuts, another childhood love, are a little smaller than tennis balls when in their fresh green hull.

Whether you’re hunting walnuts or hickory nuts, you want to see the fruit ripen beyond green to a deep beige color. They should feel a little soft but not mushy, kind of like when you’re selecting avocados for guacamole. These are the easiest hulls to get off.

Reject walnuts that feel light for their size, as they likely won’t yield any meat. Go for the heavier nuts.

As young children, we never thought or cared to use gloves when hulling walnuts, and we inevitably wound up with “black hands,” thanks to the rich black pigments in the walnut hull. A pair of garden gloves and a paring knife work best.

Once you’re down to the hard nutshell, a thorough washing with cold water doesn’t hurt, after which they need to dry in the shells in a cool, dry place for a week or two (which explains to some extent the popularity of nuts on the holiday table).

My favorite way to eat nuts was (and still is) straight out of the shell. After that, I love baking with them. I’ve only recently become a chocolate chip cookie purist; as a boy I much preferred them with black walnuts. Since we had a fairly large family, there were many different tastes and preferences for almost any food you could think of, but banana walnut bread was a universal hit.

I’m sharing here a favorite pie of mine, so rich it’s reserved for special occasions — Indiana Black Walnut and Sorghum Pie. It’s a variation on the oft-seen pecan pie, but freshly picked walnuts and good sorghum molasses make it a show-stopper.

You can find black walnuts at some farmers markets and specialty food stores or online, but you should absolutely feel free to use pecans, regular English walnuts, almonds — whatever nut meets your fancy.

Ditto with the sorghum. Light molasses or dark corn syrup make OK substitutes, the molasses being the richer of the two. But if you take time to seek out sorghum, I suspect you’ll be hooked. It’s delicious and far more nutritious than corn syrup. To boot, it tastes like autumn on the farm. What could make anyone happier?

Paul Fehribach is the chef and co-owner of Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark.

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