Posted On: 12/01/2009
Early on a recent rainy Saturday, Don Mitchell and his grandson Mitchell Dennis heaved an iron behemoth, a pecan cracker, to the back of their stand at Soulard Market. They had left Neelyville, Mo., near the Arkansas border, at 2:30 a.m., their truck loaded with pecans, decorative gourds, red and yellow apples, giant potted chrysanthemums and pumpkins orange, mahogany, blue, green and crooknecked.
When the market opened, loose pecans were mounded in two large bins. Nearby, fat 3-pound sacks slouched next to 10-pound bags standing tall. A woman whose friend in Alabama failed to send Southern paper-shell pecans fretted that the Missouri pecans wouldn’t be as good. Mitchell wordlessly cracked two and handed them to her. She picked the meats, handed the first to her friend and tasted the second herself. “I’ll take 5 pounds,” she said.
Nuts are big players in holiday fare. Rum cakes rich with black walnuts, pecan wild rice, hickory nuts in a fruited dressing and pecan halves candied or spiced. Chesnuts, roasted and puréed into a soup. All taste better when made with Missouri chestnuts, pecans, black walnuts and hickory nuts.
That morning at the market, the black wheels of the pecan cracker clacked as nuts poured into the hopper, its noisy performance attracting a crowd. The corn sheller Mitchell modified in 1969 put just enough pressure on the shell to crack but not smash the nuts. “I was still in high school when we came up with the cracker,” he said. “It makes shelling pecans a lot easier.” Long as the first joint of a thumb and big around as a nickel, these pecans are so fresh the bite could be called juicy. Like their southern brethren, Missouri pecans taste sweet and clean. I bought 10 pounds.
The oldest pecan trees on the Mitchell farm date back over a hundred years. “Stuarts. That’s the old trees,” said Mitchell. “They’re good producers, but tend to produce every other year. So 30-some years ago, we planted Delicious as well because they bear every year. We don’t have what you would call an orchard, just the trees.” One mature pecan tree, however, can bear 40 to 100 pounds of nuts.
The Mitchells have a hickory nut tree too, but an ice storm late last winter prevented the nuts from setting. Chestnut production is also down this year, and the harvest of black walnuts was hampered by the wet weather we had in October.
Some buyers will be disappointed. “We have a lady [who] buys 40 pounds of hickory nuts every year to make Mrs. Letterman’s Hickory Nut Pie – that’s David Letterman’s mother’s recipe,” said Veryl Mitchell, who seems as voluble as her husband is taciturn. “I’m going to have to call her.”
On another leg of the market, American black walnuts at the Schroeder farm stand waited, hulled and ready to crack. They bear little resemblance, in taste or appearance, to well-mannered English walnuts. Ribbed, rough shells hide a nutmeat with a rough-and-tumble flavor: intensely earthy, sharp, almost bitter. Some find the taste disturbing, but converts seek it out.
Use black walnuts in simple dishes where this wild child can shine. Pump up the flavor of homemade French vanilla ice cream, enliven a buttery pound cake, add them to oatmeal cookies and brownies. Halve the amount when substituting for sweet, mild nuts like pecans, almonds or English walnuts. For savories and side dishes, try field greens with thin-sliced apples and orange segments topped with black walnuts and a sassy vinaigrette. Or sausage, wild rice and black walnut stuffing.
If you buy black walnuts in the shell, you’ll need to crack them – and it’s not easy. My grandfather used an anvil and a huge hammer to whack them, but the thwacks broke the meat into small pieces. My cousins and I then separated nuts from shells and liberated the clinging bits with a nutpick. Hard work, but one bite of fudge studded with black walnuts made the effort worthwhile. Vises work, too, but cranking down with enough pressure to open the shell takes the strength of Samson. Wear safety glasses; the shells fly. You can order a fine nutcracker designed especially for black walnuts from Hammons Product Co. in Stockton, Mo.
Pick up local pecans, black walnuts and chestnuts at winter farmers’ markets. Or visit Mound City Shelled Nut Co., where you can buy half- or 1-pound bags of premium black walnuts already shelled. No hammers, no anvils.
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