|Stately shagbark hickory, Roseland, NJ (photo credit: author)|
As part of my herb/weed walks, foraging is interwoven with the medicinal local plants. Wild nut trees are all around us, often dropping an abundance of food clearly at our feet. Oftentimes when walking through the woods, I see the nuts on the ground first, cluing me in to their proximity. Shagbark hickory trees are easily identified because they look like someone stopped while pulling long strips of bark away from the trunks. They can grow to be over 100 feet tall, and can live to be well over 350 years old. Once a nut takes root and grows into a sapling, it takes about 10 years to bear nuts, and can produce for about 90-125 years. Their botanical name is Carya ovata, and they are in the Walnut family (Juglandaceae), which currently also includes pecans and beechnut trees.
Shagbark hickory fruit is rich and creamy, often tasting like a cross somewhere between a pecan and a walnut. The nut will fall to the ground in a green husk, (also referred to as a 'bur'), and sometimes will appear with brown spots. Usually four-five seams will be visible, and will widen as the husk dries, making it easier to remove the shell that encases the nutmeat inside.
It can be fun to gather these green hickory nuts with children and bring them home for an exquisite treat! One method of gathering is to remove the green outer husk as you pick them up, and toss back onto the ground to re-fertilize the area.
Once home, check for any that look moldy or discolored, or even contain a distinct perfectly round tiny hole. (possibly from a nut weevil that exits after eating the yummy nutmeat).
Then toss the nuts in a large bowl about half filled with water. The ones that float are questionable, so set them aside to crack immediately. The nuts that don't float should be dried for several weeks and then stored unshelled in the refrigerator. For longer shelf life, store them in the freezer.
Cracking tips: Some folks will tap them with a hammer on a stone floor. Others will cover with a cloth and use a hammer so that the sharp shell pieces don't fly around. Use a nut pick to coax out the nut meat from the shell. Extremely fresh nuts will be a little more oily, so some folks choose to let them dry for a week or so before extracting the nutmeat.
Storing tips: Other than eating them straight out of the shell (challenging to stop once you start!), you can try soaking the nut meats in brine, and then roast them for a crunchy, salty flavor. Or you can roast them slightly in a dry frying pan, or bake at 200 degrees for about 10 minutes, but the flavor won't be as rich as directly roasted nutmeats. Alternatively, you can store the nutmeats in the freezer for up to 6 months - but why would you?
Save the shells for the hearth or fire pit! The shells are hard as rocks, but because they contain oils, they will burn slowly and evenly for a delicate hickory scent or toss them on the BBQ to add a subtle hickory flavor to meats.
So try them out this fall. Let me know what you think!