Gingko Revisited, Week Ending 12/6/2020

Despite my ambivalence towards ginkgo tree (Gingko biloba) last year, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to forage them again this fall. Maybe it’s a compulsion. I see something edible all over the ground, and simply refuse to let it go to waste.

Gingko fruit carpeting the pavement in a shopping center
Gingko fruit carpeting the pavement in a shopping center

I didn’t harvest as many of the fallen gingko fruit as I could have, leaving some behind for … um … I’m not sure if wild animals or birds actually eat the fruit, given its strong “stinky cheese” aroma. But I didn’t want to appear selfish!

Pro tip: Promptly clean the soles of your shoes off after walking through fruit on the ground like this. Pulpy bits that get embedded in the tread and then dry there. You will wonder for days later “What did I step in?”

I gathered several pounds of fruit in just 15 minutes, wearing gloves of course to keep the odor off my hands.

Several pounds of stinky gingko fruit double bagged to trap the stench
Several pounds of stinky gingko fruit double bagged to trap the stench

Freeing the nuts from the pulp was also done wearing gloves. And outside. I found it quickest to slice the bottom of each fruit with a small sharp knife and then squeeze the seed out. Next time I may try a cherry pitter to see if that goes even faster.

I washed off the remaining pulp by rubbing a small handful of nuts between my palms under running water. When I finished, I was left with two cups of nuts in clean (although still “fragrant”) shells.

Cleaned (but still "fragrant"!) gingko nuts
Cleaned (but still “fragrant”!) gingko nuts

And then the same question stumps me as every other time I forage something relatively new: what should I do with it?

Most of the traditional Asian recipes I found were for sweets or desserts, and many used ingredients I had never heard of before. I was intrigued by the idea of “Yam Paste with Gingko Nuts” but it seemed like a lot of work for a dish no one else would eat! I opted for the improved version of last year’s approach, pan frying them. Since this time they would be fresh, rather than roasted for an hour first, the nuts should pop when they were ready to eat.

Like popping corn in a pan, right? (Does anyone cook popcorn this way anymore?) How hard could this be? I put some butter in a small sautee pan over medium heat, and once melted added a cup of gingko nuts and a sprinkle of cajun seasoning, and set to periodically shaking the pan for 10 – 15 minutes until the nuts popped.

Pan frying gingko nuts over medium heat
Pan frying gingko nuts over medium heat

Two important lessons here. One – it doesn’t matter what oil or seasoning you use, because it all clings to the shell, and barely any gets on the nutmeat inside. I had envisioned something pistachio-like, where the shell easily comes apart and the flavors are all over the nut too. Only a tiny bit did, which was probably good because the gingko was slightly sweet and the cajun seasoning didn’t complement it well.

More importantly, gingko nuts don’t “pop” in the pan. They freaking explode and ricochet across your kitchen, striking innocent bystanders in the temple and knocking them out cold. OK not quite. But the first time one shot out of the pan, I shrieked and everyone nearby dove for cover. We managed to get a metal splatter screen over the pan in nick of time, just before another BOOM from the nuts within. I continued to shake the pan with an increasing sense of dread.

(I had briefly toyed with the idea of air frying the gingko nuts instead using the sautee pan, and I’m REALLY glad I didn’t!)

I admit, I gave up before all the nuts had popped.

Which left us with mixed results. Some of the nuts had cooked to the point where the meat was crispy and caramelized, and these were amazingly delicious and a pleasure to eat. Others were varied from firm to soft (although all were definitely cooked), and also differed in how hard they were to remove from the shell. The shells were thin enough my husband opted to eat them whole, shells and all, rather than daintily trying to separate them like I did. (The kids, of course, didn’t even try.)

For the record, pan fried gingko nuts do NOT keep well in the fridge overnight, so only cook as much as you plan to eat at one time. Store extra uncooked nuts in the fridge in a covered container for about a week.

It’s important not to eat the nuts raw; luckily its very easy to tell an uncooked nut (upper left in the photo) from the translucent amber color of a pan fried nut (lower left). (Other preparations of gingko nuts will result in a more green, or yellow-green color, but still translucent once cooked.)

Raw gingko nuts (upper left) versus cooked (lower right)
Raw gingko nuts (upper left) versus cooked (lower right)

And always remember to introduce new foods slowly. Apparently some people have adverse reactions to the nuts, including migraines, vertigo, and breathing problems.

If I pan fry gingko nuts, I’ll probably parboil them slightly to make them easier to remove from the shell, and then cook them without fear of injury!

What wild foods are you cooking these days (dangerous or otherwise)?

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