It’s been the Year of the Walnut here in Alsace. I love the sound of the nuts as they explode out of their green casings and fall to the ground with a gentle, muffled thud. I’ve been circling around beneath our tree, bucket in hand, gathering up the ripe fruits. I left a few for the woodpecker, who still comes to glean the odd leftover. He hacks away patiently at the shells until they yield their contents, then flies off. I stored my own cache on the terrace to dry; yesterday I watched in admiration as a great tit flew in, perched on the edge and had a crack at opening one of the shells. You have to hand it to him for trying – a woodpecker, yes, a finch even, with his stout bill – but a tiny little great tit?
It’s a bit of a miracle our tree even survived. When we bought the land over 20 years ago, there was a small walnut tree not much more than a couple of metres high, only recently planted by our neighbour (who’d sold us the land). Trouble was, once we started digging the hole for the house and planning the garden, it became evident the walnut was smack in the wrong place. We moved it. Not once, but twice. My neighbour looked down from his house above ours, shook his head and observed gloomily (whenever the opportunity arose) that it would never survive so many moves.
Twenty-four years on it’s about 12 metres high and almost as broad, and it gives me endless pleasure – and tons of nuts – every year. When these are freshly harvested and still pale ivory-coloured, I make that fabulous Mexican dish, chiles en nogada, which requires you to crack the walnuts open, wheedle them out of the shells, cover the meats in boiling water and then peel away the brown casing. It’s a labour of love and not a job for the fainthearted. The final step is to pulverise the peeled nuts with white breadcrumbs, crème fraiche and cream cheese to give a creamy, nutty sauce, to be served (cold) with the hot (temperature and spice) chiles poblanos, which are stuffed with ground meat, raisins and dried fruit.
Here’s an even easier walnut sauce, which has its roots both in nogada and the Turkish and Middle Eastern tarator sauce. Don’t, I beseech you, use walnuts from a packet – who knows how many miles they flew to get to you or how long they’ve languished on some shelf; at best they’re stale, at worst, rancid. Buy walnuts in the shell (you need about 24 to give you the necessary 50g), and crack’em open – enlist anyone who’s passing to give you a hand. I’ve spared you the peeling step (phew) and instead of the creme fraiche and cream cheese I use for my nogada, I’ve substituted the less rich fromage blanc and enlisted the help of little (very un-Mexican) olive oil. On the other hand, I’ve left out the garlic that goes into most tarator sauce recipes – raw garlic is, IMHO, too strident for the creamy nuttiness of the walnuts.
Note that this is a sauce to be served cold – the cool, nutty contrast with warm roast or grilled or barbecued vegetables is rather wonderful (at last Friday’s workshop we had it with a mix of roast/grilled aubergines, courgettes and peppers); and it’s pretty brilliant with fish or chicken, simply grilled or barbecued. Or you can use it as a dip, with sticks of yummy raw veg (celery, fennel, carrots & Co.). It’s also yum stirred into thin strands of pasta – try it with linguine.
Walnut sauce – makes about 1 cup
A 50g-slice of country-style bread, crusts removed
A little milk
50g shelled walnuts
Juice of ½ a lemon
100g fromage blanc or quark (20% fat)
100ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
Chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Place the bread in a dish and add milk to cover. Leave it to soak up the milk.
- Once the bread is soft, squeeze it out well (reserve the milk) and place in a blender with the walnuts, lemon juice, fromage blanc/Quark, olive oil and salt and pepper.
- Blend till smooth, scraping down and re-blending to make sure all is incorporated. If the blades are having a job turning, add a little reserved milk.
- Tip sauce into a bowl and sprinkle with parsley. Refrigerate till needed. It will keep happily for up to a week.