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If you’ve never tasted hickory nuts, you owe it to yourself to try them. The fall crop has dried and cured sufficiently and right now is their peak season.

They’re not available in our stores, so you have to buy them online. But there, especially on eBay (ebay.com/bhp/hickory-nuts), your cup will runneth over with these choicest of all wild American nuts.

If you buy them shelled out, they’re expensive — about $20 to $30 a pound. That’s because the nutmeats are devilishly difficult to separate from the thick shells that encase the meats in swirling chambers of bone-hard material. Processors use machinery to smash open the hard shells, but pieces of shell will inevitably get through the process, and so the nutmeats have to be picked over by hand — sometimes many times — to make sure the shell bits are completely removed.

They’re also sold as unshelled nuts on eBay and elsewhere, usually for about $5 to $8 a pound, but be aware that to pry a cupful of nutmeats from their bony chambers will take you a good hour unless you’re lucky enough to have nuts from the rare tree that is genetically generous enough to produce nutshells that are easy to pick. “Rare” is the operative word, but such trees do exist.

As to the flavor of the nuts, it’s incomparable. Think of hickory smoked meats. What makes hickory smoking so good is the rich, intense flavor the perfumed smoke imparts. Hickory nuts are the nut world’s equivalent of hickory smoking.

Pecans are a Southern relative of the hickory, and while their flavor is delicious, it pales in comparison to freshly shelled hickory nuts, whose volatile oils and esters make them so unique. No other nut comes close, except maybe for the intense black walnut whose flavor, while deep and rich, has a dark and somewhat bitter edge to it, unlike the buttery-sweet and bright, richly nutty hickory.

If you’re old enough, you may remember a TV ad for Grape Nuts cereal that featured the late wild forager Euell Gibbons claiming that the cereal “tastes like wild hickory nuts.” That was nonsense — marketing talk — and Gibbons, with whom I worked at Organic Gardening magazine and knew well, ruined his reputation as a wild food truth-teller, even as he carried his remuneration off to the bank.

There are 19 species of Carya — the genus that includes hickory, pecan, butternut, and other wild nut trees east of the Rockies. The two tastiest and most important species of hickory are the shagbark and shellbark types, with shagbarks — so named for the shaggy bark that peels off the tree trunks in long, rough slabs — having a slight edge in flavor. Both these species grow wild across the northern Midwest east to the Mid-Atlantic states, so your online providers may be located anywhere from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania. Any location in that range will be fine.

If you buy nuts online, look for freshly shelled or, better yet, to get the best flavor, unshelled shagbark nuts. They should be raw, not roasted or dried. If you buy them unshelled, you’ll not only save yourself some money but you’ll get their full flavor as they emerge from their shells.

The easiest way to crack unshelled hickories is with two bricks. Some try to use a hammer, but that usually results in hard nuts zinging around the room without cracking. Once you’ve cracked the shells open into halves or pieces, use the locking pliers called vise-grips and nutpicks to get the meats from the shells.

It takes some work, but what else do you have to do when watching your favorite TV shows on a cold winter night?

All this rigmarole might not be something you’d do more than once, but to experience this queen of all American nuts puts you in touch with countless thousands of Native Americans who used them as an important food source for tens of thousands of years, and with the wild boars, squirrels, mice, wood rats, and other animals that followed suit. Squirrels have been known to selectively pick out the shagbark hickories from among shellbarks, pignuts, and other hickory relatives and carry them off to secret stashes where they relish them over winter.

Hickory nuts are chockablock with essential fatty acids, heart-healthy oils, trace minerals, and antioxidants. They are wonderful as a snack by themselves, so much so that the biggest problem with them is that you gobble them down as fast as you shell them out, leaving none to make other dishes.

One such dish is cornmeal-hickory mush made by pounding hickory nuts to a coarse paste in a mortar and pestle, placing them in a saucepan with a cup of water per half cup of paste, and heating gently until a milky broth is made. Add cornmeal to the hot broth until it thickens and then sweeten to taste with maple sugar. It’s the best grits you’ll ever have.

Or, instead of using pecans, make a hickory nut pie. Or add them to your chocolate chip cookies — oh man, now that’s a treat. The problem, though, is that the rich flavor of the chocolate will bury some of the nuances of the nut flavors. In that case, you may want to add them to a more neutral-flavored cookie. Here’s a recipe.

Wild Hickory Nut Shortbread Cookies

Makes 40-48 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon orange zest

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup coarsely and finely chopped fresh hickory nutmeats

Beat the butter with a wooden spoon until creamy and aerated.

Add the orange zest and salt and incorporate.

Add the flour, sugar and vanilla and incorporate.

Stir in the nuts. The dough should hold together but be dry.

Form the dough into a 2x12-inch log, wrap in wax paper, and place in the fridge for at least two hours or overnight.

Position racks in middle positions. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice the dough into 1/4-inch coins and arrange them on the baking sheets, leaving an inch between coins in all directions. Bake for six minutes, then rotate pans and switch top pan to bottom rack and bottom pan to top rack. Bake six more minutes, or until edges of the cookies are light golden brown. Cool.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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