We have a number of large trees in our yard and border woods here at Tyrant Farms. As we continue to learn to look at nature as a beautiful, fascinating grocery store that’s open 24-7, we’re also learning to see trees in a much different light.
For instance, those huge “pesky” white oak acorns that fall all over our yard and driveway? Those make delicious nutritious acorn flour that we look forward to each fall.
Those giant sun-blocking tulip poplars? They’re the primary source of the majority of local honey, and their root systems are symbiotically engaged to one of our favorite mushrooms: the tulip morel, that fruits for about one month per year in the early spring.
As it turns out, nearly every tree in our woods not only supports a huge variety of life (above and below ground), they either directly or indirectly provide an abundance of delicious edible food for us as well — in addition to offering medicinal benefits.
Another such tree: the hickory.
It just happens that we have a massive hickory tree that drops nuts the size of golf balls in some of our backyard garden beds (a few of these nuts have kamikazied several squash and melon plants).
At first, we didn’t know quite what to make of these nuts… when we’d peel off the thick green husk, the shell on the nuts were thick and rock-hard.
Unlike the nuts of hickory’s relatives, pecans and walnuts, no matter how we tried to crack our hickory nuts (a hammer was the only instrument strong enough), the shells always seemed to shatter into small pieces, making the clean extraction of the nut meat impossible.
These small nut pieces gave us a tantalizing taste of the goodness inside, with the nut’s flavor profile somewhere between pecan and a black walnuts (all three are in the Juglandaceae family).
Enter our friend Mr. Evan Tishuk and the power of the interwebs.
During a spring visit, Evan looked at our hickory tree and exclaimed, “Oh, wow, you have to let me know when your hickories are ripe. I read an online hickory recipe for making something that’s supposed to taste like ambrosia.”
Yes, “ambrosia” as in the go-to drink of the Greek gods. Our interest immediately piqued, especially the Tyrant’s, as she thought of summoning Zeus to show him a thing or two about being the boss of, well, everything.
It’s now fall-ish, and the hickory nuts are beginning to drop more frequently. So, last weekend, the Tyrant and I decided to collect some of the early nuts and give this heavenly hickory concoction a try.
We’re very glad we did, because hickory nut ambrosia is one incredibly tasty, unique beverage that also happens to be super easy to make (you use both the shell and the nut, no separation required!).
The Tyrant and I now have yet another delicious treat to look forward to from our yard each fall, and we hope you’ll give it a try too. In case you were wondering, Zeus was a no-show, which we attribute to his being scared of The Tyrant.
Two Warnings About Hickory Nuts
Once the inside nut is removed, you can save the green or brown hickory husks for smoking meats or for composting.
There is a bit of a debate in the gardening community as to whether it’s a good idea to add hickory husks to your compost since they contain a small amount of “juglone,” an organic compound (5 hydroxy-1, 4-napthoquinone) that can kill other plants.
While we save our hickory husks for smoked foods, we think it’s perfectly fine to compost them. As West Virginia University Extension says, hickory nuts “produce such limited quantities [of juglone] compared to the black walnut that toxicity to other plants is rarely observed.”
2. Not all hickory trees are the same.
Apparently, not all hickory trees (or hickory nuts) are created equally.
Certain types of “Pignut” and “Bitternut” hickories are supposed to taste quite unpleasant to the point of inedibility. We’re fortunate to have a very tasty variety of Red Hickory (Carya Ovalis), growing in our yard.
Here’s a great Hickory ID Resource from Vanderbilt University that can help you make your hickory tree ID. As far as we can tell, no hickory nut varieties are poisonous, so perhaps consider cracking and tasting a few nuts before going all-in.
Good hickory varieties will have a walnut/pecan flavor profile.
HICORY NUT AMBROSIA RECIPE
The smell of Hickory Nut Ambrosia as it’s brewing on your stove does indeed seem divine, and the taste is every bit as good as its nose, especially if you add a bit of whole grass milk and a shot of honey or real maple syrup right before you serve it.
Many thanks to our friend Evan for sharing his recipe source: Tom Nagy over at Tom’s Trees. We’ve slightly amended Tom’s recipe/instructions for our own tastes, and you can amend our version of the recipe for your own tastes as you see fit.
Recipe: How to Make Hickory Nut Ambrosia
- *2 C. crushed hickory nuts & hickory shells husks removed. (you can use however many cups of hickory nuts you want, just make sure to use 3 times as much water relative to the amount of hickories)
- 6 C. Water
- 1 C. Raw Organic Milk regular pasteurized milk or cream is fine too
- 4 Tb Raw Honey or Pure Maple Syrup either is great
Remove the Hickory Husk - Using your hands or a dull knife, separate the husk from the shell (they should come off easily).
Float or Sink Test - Once you have removed the husks and have your hickory nuts in a bowl, fill the bowl up with water. Any of the hickory nuts that sink are going to become part of your ambrosia. Any nuts that float can be tossed aside since they probably have a small worm called a weevil inside (other critters eat the same foods as we do, so occasionally sharing food with them seems like a much smarter alternative than killing them with deadly sprays that you end up feeding yourself and your family). Note: This step is optional – you can also find and remove any bad nuts during the cracking process (next step).
Crack ‘Em - Cut off a square piece of thick cardboard from an old box (2×2 size should be fine), then grab a hammer, and a bowl. Bring these 3 items + your hickory nuts to a flat hard outdoor surface (a concrete driveway is ideal, especially if you want your neighbors to think you’re nuts, no pun intended). Place one hickory nut at a time on the cardboard, then fold the cardboard over so that it covers the nut (like a hickory nut cardboard sandwich). Smash each nut into smallish pieces with a hammer (you don’t have to pulverize them, quartered pieces is plenty small). Once you get the hang of doing one nut at a time, you can graduate to doing 5 or more to speed things up. Place the smashed hickory nut pieces—both the shell and nut pieces together—into your bowl (both the nutmeat and the shell go into your ambrosia). You’ll occasionally get a bad nut that is black inside, so make sure to look at each cracked nut before you add it to your “good nut” bowl. You might even find an small white worm (weevil) that you’ll probably want to remove as well. Yes, other lifeforms like to eat things that are not covered in poison, but we’d rather deal with the occasional insect than a carcinogenic pesticide.
Measure - Take your bowl of hickory nuts and shell pieces and pour them into a measuring bowl. Whatever the quantity of your hickories, you’ll need to have about 3 times more water than nuts in your simmering pot. So if you have 1 cup of hickory pieces, you’ll add 3 cups of water.
Simmer - Simmer your hickories in a covered pot for about 30 minutes, and stir them vigorously once every 10 minutes or so to help break apart the nuts and unlock more flavor. Just in case you don’t know, “simmering” is a low-medium temperature setting on your stove, not a high-temp setting. After about 30+ minutes, remove the lid and simmer the hickories for 10-15 more minutes to help the flavors concentrate. *The original recipe from Tom’s Trees that we referenced said NOT to simmer the hickories for longer than 45 minutes total since the flavors may become too strong, but we’ve removed the lid and simmered them for up to 2 additional hours and have found the ambrosia to be even richer/more flavorful than the 45 minute version. The outcome probably just depends on the type of hickory nuts being used and each person’s individual taste preferences, so don’t be afraid to experiment!
Skim, Separate - You’ll notice that a lot of the nut pieces will separate from the shell when you’re simmering your hickories. So, once you’re all done simmering your hickories (after 40-45 minutes), skim these little nuggets of goodness off of the surface with a spoon or ladle. Most of the flavor will already be drained out of these hickory nuggets into your ambrosia, but they’re still good to add to oatmeal, pumpkin bread, or any number of other recipes. Now, pour your entire pot (hickory nuts, shells, and ambrosia) through a strainer or cheese cloth. We had to get creative with our spaghetti colander this time around since we didn’t have either cheese cloth or a fine strainer handy.
Serve - Pour your hot hickory ambrosia into cups and add either a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup to each cup (either one is great, but we like the idea of maple tree syrup paired with hickory tree ambrosia). Also, add a shot of whole grass milk for some extra creaminess and depth.
Enjoy your Hickory Nut Ambrosia with friends or family on a cool, fall night or for an early morning coffee substitute. This is a seasonal delight that we’re going to look forward to each fall, and we hope you will too!