150127_jos_walnuts

I love black walnuts. Difficult as they are to hull, as awful as the stains from the hulls can be, to me they are a quintessential flavor of Missouri. To get the nutmeats, my grandmother would put them in burlap bags, and my granddad would drive the car over them. Tough nuts to be sure.

This year I made Nocino, a green walnut based liquor found in Italy. Since it has to age for a long time, I don’t know how it will turn out. A good Nocino has a rich, unmistakable flavor. Used as a digestive, an aperitif or a nightcap, I hope to recapture the sweet nutty flavor I loved in Italy.

Missouri Nocino

  • 30 green black walnuts (The walnuts should be young and green. They should have a soft inside before the wooden case has hardened.)
  • 1 liter of good, high-proof Vodka, such as Grey’s Peak
  • Zest of 1 lemon cut into strips. (A potato peeler was the best tool for this job.)
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1/4 stick of cinnamon
  • 1-inch piece of vanilla
  • Although not traditional in Italy, I added two coffee beans
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water

Cut the walnuts into quarters wearing gloves — they will dye your hands. Put them in a large, sealable glass jar with vodka, lemon zest, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla and coffee beans. Close jar and leave under sun for 60 days, shaking a few times.

At the end of 60 days, cook 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water over low heat until sugar dissolves; let cool.

Filter the alcohol through a chinois, straining out the walnuts and spices. Mix with the sugar syrup and filter again (you can also use paper filters or cheesecloth). Bottle and seal. It improves with age, at least six months to two years!

I used to help with the Great Chefs of France series held at Mondavi Winery in Napa. Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margret, were the first in the country to host these types of events. In the food world it was considered a great honor to be asked to assist. In retrospect, it also was a good deal for them — free help!

I was charged to create a Midwestern dish using Midwestern ingredients for one of the top chefs in France at the time, Paul Bocuse. Whoa. What to do? (Especially since he also thought he was the top chef in France.) Couldn’t serve him fried chicken. So I made the following using black walnuts and catfish. I never had anything like this growing up, but he didn’t know that.

Catfish and Black Walnuts on Greens

  • 2 egg whites, very lightly beaten
  • 6 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon (I like Knob Hill or Makers Mark)
  • 1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound catfish, skinned, boned and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Oil for deep frying
  • 1 cup finely chopped black walnuts

Combine egg whites, cornstarch, salt, bourbon and pepper. Add catfish to mixture, coating each piece well.

Cover and refrigerate for 30 to 45 minutes.

In a large pot, heat oil to 375 degrees. Dip each piece of catfish in nuts and deep fry until golden brown, about four minutes. Remove fish with slotted spoon, drain on paper towels. Place on bed of sautéed greens and serve immediately.

Greens

  • 2 tablespoons bacon fat
  • 2 bunches dandelion greens, coarsely chopped
  • 1 to 3 tablespoons malt vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large sauté pan, melt bacon fat and add greens. Sauté over medium heat until they just start to wilt. Add malt vinegar to taste, season with salt and pepper.

And a favorite appetizer: Spread goat cheese over crusty baguette slices, top with thinly sliced pear, finely minced red onion and chopped black walnuts.

Lonnie Gandara Taylor is a St. Joseph native who has returned home after a prestigious career in the culinary field. She taught cooking classes in the San Francisco Bay area for years and was a professional assistant to Julie Child, James Beard, Martha Stewart, Simone Beck and Martin Yan, among others. She is a graduate of the Paris Cordon Bleu, the Academie du Vin in Paris and the first culinary class held in the Oriental hotel in Bangkok, as well as being the author of five cookbooks.