Skinless, pristine walnuts are a requirement for the nogada, the creamy sauce that covers the Poblano pepper. The sauce must be white to reflect one of the colors of the Mexican flag; walnut skin adds a brownish tint.
In both of the chiles en nogada cooking classes I’d taken, we did not peel our own walnuts because it took too long. In fact, no one I knew peeled their walnuts themselves. I kept wondering: how long did peeling walnuts actually take? If I really wanted to understand chiles en nogada, a recipe invented by ascetic Poblana nuns who scorned idleness, didn’t I sort of have to know?
It turns out nature didn’t really intend for walnuts to be peeled. First you have to remove the shell without destroying the soft walnut pulp inside. Then you have to wiggle the walnuts out of their crevices, and delicately, with the agility of threading a needle, peel back their papery skin tiny pieces at a time. When — huzzah! — one large piece of skin comes off, it’s like putting the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or peeling an orange in one long, windy strip. There is satisfaction in peeling walnuts. But it comes in trickles.
In my quest to feel like a 19th-century Mexican nun, I spent 4 1/2 hours last Friday and Saturday cracking and peeling walnuts. That was the key part I hadn’t thought of: the cracking. By the time I had enough walnuts to make nogada sauce for 10 people (roughly 4 cups of whole and halved walnuts), my thumbs were sore and covered in scrapes. My eyes hurt from squinting at pinhead-sized pieces of walnut skin. I couldn’t even take pictures with my iPhone of my pile of walnut scraps and shells, because my thumbs didn’t want to move. It was like Blackberry thumb, but worse. Walnut thumb.
I will never do it again, unless I’m only cooking for four. But who makes chiles en nogada for four?
Here are some instructions, in case you’re struck with a bout of nunliness like I was.
How to Peel Walnuts
By a Girl Who Peeled Walnuts for More Than 4 Hours, To Make a Mexican Dish In the Style of the Nuns
1. Using a small hammer (forget the nutcracker, in my opinion, as it gives an out-of-control crack instead of controlled hits here and there), crack the walnut once along the thick border that runs from pole-to-pole. Turn it over and crack in the same place on the other side.
2. Still using your hammer, crack the walnut a few times along its smooth, rounded shell. Turn it over and do the same thing again. You don’t want to crack only on one side, as that will loosen the walnuts one one side and not the other, and it’s a big bummer when that happens because one side of your walnut WILL NOT COME OUT. (Alternately, once you’re comfortable cracking, you may hit the walnut multiple times in different spots, turning as you see fit.)
3. Once you notice cracks in the outer shell, peel it away with your fingers. You should see glorious walnuts inside.
4. Carefully remove the remaining outer shell and wiggle the walnuts inside, freeing them of the tough inner somewhat T-shaped membrane. If small walnut pieces break off, that’s okay. Let them go. You don’t really need them anyway.
5. You should now have large pieces of walnut, free of their shell and their tough membrane. Using your fingernail (and your reading glasses, if you need them), gently tear a piece of the skin off. Continue until all the skin is removed. It’s sort of like peeling a garlic clove. Take pleasure in it.
6. The naked walnuts should be placed in water so they don’t turn brown. Freeze them if you’re planning on using them in more than 24 hours. Note that they WILL turn slightly beige in the freezer unless you freeze them in water. I personally find the freezing-in-water step unnecessary, as my walnut sauce still turned out very white, from both the milk and the goat cheese.
I’ll be posting my recipe in a few days, as soon as my fingers recover.