Red walnuts. Ever heard of them? This rare blood-red California crop grows on only five contiguous acres in the state, and is hard to find.
I’m a big nut fan—I start every morning with a fistful of chopped nuts in my oatmeal, which helps keep me full till lunchtime. As a vegetarian, nuts are a staple.
A small serving of walnuts (1/4 cup) contains 95 percent of the daily omega-3 fatty acids your body needs. They’re also rich in antioxidants, vitamin E, fiber, protein, and heart-healthy fats that reduce bad cholesterol and raise the good kind.
Last May, I was visiting a friend in San Diego and stumbled across red walnuts at the farmers’ market. As a food photographer, you can imagine my elation! Despite their hefty price ($11 per half-pound!), I plunked my money down. Taking photos of brown nuts can be tricky. They aren’t glamorous. But these? These red walnuts are the Renée Zellweger of nuts!—very camera friendly.
You’ll pay more for the beauty of these nuts. Like any good princess, they take their time. Traditional walnut trees can be harvested 2-3 years after planting. The red walnut can take 8 years!
Red walnuts offer a unique flavor, too. They’re less tannic than traditional walnuts, giving them a smoother mouth feel without losing that distinct earthy, creamy quality. They’re also firmer, offering a crunchier bite compared to their less colorful counterparts.
These nuts, known as Robert Livermores, are California-natives, originally developed at UC Davis in 1991 by cross-breeding a UC cultivar with a variety from the French National Institute of Agricultural Research collection. They also developed the Yolo Red Walnut. The resulting red nuts are best when hand-shelled, as their crimson coat tends to chip away when jostled, revealing a less attractive, pale, tan interior.
Thankfully, you can find these nuts far cheaper online than what you’ll pay at the San Diego farmers’ market. Mine arrived in the mail just last week—the first of the harvest—from Haag Family Farm in Esparto, where the nuts are 100% insecticide free. I paid $8.95 a pound—and they require a 5 pound minimum order. Split your order with a group of friends to make it more affordable.
I wanted to showcase the beauty of these walnuts, so I made an easy, delicious red walnut cookie. Spiked with bright cinnamon, bathed in brown sugar, and topped with a full, wine-colored half walnut kiss, these cookies taste as good as they look.
Red Walnut Cookie Recipe
Adapted from Maida Heatter’s Nut Tree Walnut Jumbles
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon (I use Saigon cinnamon)
1 stick (1/4 lb) butter at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 organic egg
½ cup organic sour cream
1 heaping cup red walnut pieces
24 walnut halves
Farmers’ market ingredients: butter, egg, red walnuts
California-grown ingredients: sour cream
Supermarket ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with tin foil.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until it’s creamy. Add the vanilla and brown sugar, and mix until well combined. Add the egg and mix again until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you blend.
Add half of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix until combined. Add all the sour cream and the rest of the flour mixture. Mix until just combined.
Remove the bowl from the stand mixer. By hand, fold 1 heaping cup of the walnut pieces into the cookie batter.
Drop cookie dough by one rounded tablespoon onto the foil-lined baking sheet, leaving 2 inches between each cookie. Press a walnut half onto the top of each dough ball. Place the full cookie sheet into the oven and bake for 12-14 minutes. The cookies are done when the edges are golden and the dough bounces back when pressed gently with your finger. Repeat this process until all the cookie dough has been used.
Remove finished cookies from oven and use a spatula to transfer the cookies to a cooling rack.
Yield: 24 large, soft cookies
Want to learn more about red walnuts?
Here’s a fun video by The Vegetarian Guy from the San Diego farmers’ market with an interview of the seller.
There’s a Newf in My Soup makes a Linguine with Red Walnuts & Swiss Chard recipe.