Black walnut orechiette Credit: Julia Thiel

Black walnuts are notoriously tough to crack. Challenged by Edward Sura of Perennial Virant to create a dish with the walnuts, Homestead chef Chris Davies read about “all these weird, redneck ways of opening them,” he says. “They take their cars and drive over them. They get a board with a hole in it and pound them through with a towel.” 

After Davies got a batch of black walnuts from local forager Dave Odd and another from Sura’s family farm in Michigan, he discovered that their reputation is well deserved. “They were such a pain to get out,” he says. First he had to remove the green outer husk, revealing “this composty black mulch” that surrounds the walnut shell; it’s used to make dyes and stains and will also stain your hands black. “I wised up and started wearing gloves,” Davies says. “It gets everywhere.”

He boiled the walnuts in water to make them easier to crack—which also gave him a walnut stock that he used in his dish—and then used a bolt cutter to get at the nutmeats. They were worth all the work: Davies describes the flavor as “this superearthy sweetness, something you’d get out of a really nice Burgundy truffle. It’s got this real round, almost umami sweetness.”

Davies considered making a dish with truffles but changed his mind once he realized how expensive it would be. Instead, he made orechiette with the black walnut stock, semolina flour, and all-purpose flour, and black walnut vinaigrette with bacon, caraway, shallot, garlic, black walnut syrup (which he bought from Rare Tea Cellar), and vinegar that he’d steeped with black walnuts.

While the orechiette cooked, Davies made a pan sauce, starting with black walnut stock he’d fortified with black walnut bitters; after the liquid reduced he added roasted turnips, squash, and sunchokes, then butter and the black walnut vinaigrette. He pulled the orechiette from the boiling water and added it to the mixture before piling the pasta and vegetables on a plate he’d already smeared with a dollop of smoked carrot puree. He garnished the dish with thinly sliced golden beets and radishes, sprigs of chickweed, bread crumbs, and black walnut pieces.

Surveying the black-tinted pasta on the bright orange carrot puree, Davies observed, “I think I did a Halloween-themed dish without even realizing it.” He liked it so much that he’s planning to put it on the menu, switching up the vegetables seasonally. “You get a lot of smoke, a lot of earthiness from the black walnut and sunchokes, and a very astringent sweetness.”

Who’s next:

Davies has challenged Scott Manley of Table, Donkey and Stick to create a dish with crab apples.

Black walnut orechiette

500 grams semolina flour
500 grams 00 flour (or all-purpose flour)
500 grams black walnut water*

Place semolina and 00 flour in a mixer and blend on low speed. Slowly add the black walnut water to the mixture. The dough should catch and slowly become malleable and emulsified.

When the dough is emulsified, remove and knead by hand until it relaxes, adding flour as needed to avoid sticking (around five minutes). Wrap dough tightly in plastic wrap and let it sit for 30 minutes.

Cut off a small piece of dough and roll like a rope to the circumference of a Sharpie marker. Cut the rope into half-inch pieces and with each piece press hard with your thumb, and then stretch over your opposite hand’s pointer finger. There should be curved ridges on the outside of the orechiette and the pieces of pasta should resemble an ear. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for about four minutes. Strain and finish cooking pasta in desired sauce for an additional two minutes.

*Black walnut water: Remove green husks from two pounds of black walnuts and rinse well. Boil walnuts for one hour in four quarts of water and then strain, reserving both the water and the walnuts. Chill the water to room temperature.