Usually, black walnuts are folded into fudge, cakes, pies, ice cream, and other sweets, where their wonderfully pungent and earthy flavor off-sets cloying sweetness, and where sweeteners round out some the nut’s sharper notes.
But, when eaten out of hand, the flavor of black walnuts, America’s own native nut, can be something to get used to, especially to the unschooled palate. In comparison, the familiar flavor of the reserved English walnut is facile; black walnuts require a training regimen. Black walnuts make you earn their respect.
Make this pesto part of your training regimen. Though it’s easy to fall in love with black walnuts when your introduction to them is in a lovingly prepared dessert, this savory treatment is just as irresistible, especially when paired with mushrooms and soba.
If you’re developing a taste for black walnuts, you might start with half black walnuts and half regular “English” walnuts. (I’m still in training, so for this recipe I stared with a 50/50 ratio and am working my way up from there.) If you and black walnuts are on familiar terms, you will probably like this dish made with 100 percent black walnuts.
Soba with Black Walnut Parsley Pesto and Mushrooms
Makes 6 hearty servings or 8 starter portions
For the Black Walnut Parsley Pesto:
(Makes 1 heaping cup)
½ cup black walnuts, toasted (see Notes)
4 cups (packed) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (about ½ ounce)
3 grinds peppercorns
2 pinches crushed red pepper
2 pinches of salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
* * * * *
2 (8-ounce) packages soba noodles
12 ounces mushrooms, sliced and sautéed
1 skinless, boneless chicken breast (about 1¼ pounds), cooked and sliced or diced (optional; see Notes)
To make the pesto: Pulse the walnuts in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the parsley, garlic, Parmesan, black and red peppers, and salt and pulse until the parsley is finely chopped. Slowly pour in the oil while the machine is running, stopping to scrape down the sides two or three times. Pesto can be made 4 days ahead. (To reduce discoloration, store with a place a piece of plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface of the pesto, a nifty little technique that goes by the name of “cartouching.”)
To serve: Cook the soba according to the package directions, then toss with the pesto, mushrooms, and chicken (if using) in a large saute pan over medium-low heat to combine and heat through.
Notes: If you want to make a milder version of this pesto, use a 50/50 ratio of black walnuts and English walnuts. I recommend using ¼ heaping cup black walnut pieces and ¼ heaping cup English walnut halves. I used Hammons’ “Fancy Large” black walnuts to make this recipe. If you use Hammons’ “Fancy Large Premium” black walnuts (in the bag with the Missouri Dandy label), for an accurate measurement, coarsely chop the nuts before measuring them as they tend to be larger than those called simply “Fancy Large.” (The Missouri Dandy nuts are available for purchase on Hammons’ site only.)
Because the pesto is rich, and the mushrooms are sautéed, a lighter cooking method is best for the chicken, such as poaching, steaming, or using a combination pan-fry and pan-steam method. The latter method I picked up from one of the cookbook authors I’ve edited, Kelly Brozyna, whose everyday method for cooking boneless, skinless chicken breast, which she calls Easy Chicken, is included in her book Easy Paleo Meals. The method, adapted here slightly, is to season the chicken with salt and pepper, heat a skillet up over medium heat, add a little oil to the hot pan, sear the chicken until it can easily be dislodged from the bottom of the pan (1 to 2 minutes), flip it over, add a little water, cover the pan tightly, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until done, about 15 minutes.