Wylie Dufresne, known for filling WD-50’s menu with offbeat combinations like lamb with banana consommé or beets with chocolate cream, said he had once seen photographs of artfully prepared ginkgo nuts and had immediately liked the look of them. “I’m interested in them in theory,” he told me. “I’m always interested in the unusual, and I love nuts, but since I’ve never had them I just have a romantic notion of them. We don’t have daily specials, and I couldn’t have a regular supplier for ginkgo nuts, so they wouldn’t work for our menu, just practically speaking.” So, oddly enough, their biggest attraction for Dufresne was the fact that they were unfamiliar and their main drawback was that they are so severely seasonal and local.
Union Square Café, on the other hand, is famous for its Greenmarket-influenced daily specials. But executive chef Carmen Quagliata was a little skeptical when I tried to sell him on this special nut that he might collect from trees just 50 yards from his restaurant’s entrance in Union Square Park.
“For us,” he said over the clangy, jovial din of his kitchen, “it all comes down to taste, so if it tastes good, if there’s a reason to cook with it, we’d already be using it. We have plenty of people out there foraging for new foods and new ideas twenty-four hours a day, and this thing hasn’t crossed our path yet.”
After I hung up, I came very close to tossing my now dry (but still pungent) ginkgo nut collection and lighting my most intense aromatherapy candle. Instead—egged on by the conviction that the elderly Asian ginkgo fruit gatherers who had originally motivated me had to be on to something worthwhile—I started in on four days of ginkgo nut experiments. Based on a recipe from the grill cook at Masa, I boiled them in a tiny bit of salted water and put them on a salad. I roasted them with maple syrup. I roasted them in the shell, and then served them with a little bit of salt. But nothing was working: They had a gummy texture, and their rich, nutty flavor was curbed by a quick bitterness. Then, using my Cajun husband’s motto that all things taste good fried, I egg-washed them, rolled them in flour, salt, and pepper, and threw them in hot oil. My husband and I watched them immediately turn a brilliant, beautiful jade-green color under their light layers of fry. I beamed. I felt like I’d just harvested my first backyard zucchini crop or caught my first fish from a nearby river. Even before we popped the little fried pips into our mouths and tasted the perfectly charming balance of nature’s nuttiness and searing hot oil, we knew we’d done it—we’d amped up our already ridiculous game of seasonal and local eating. And so, naturally, we stood there chomping away in our tiny urban kitchen and started working the fried ginkgo nuts into our Friday night dinner party menu.