Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Local Harvest: Foraging for Acorns

A big welcome back to The Raven, a Booth favorite who retired a few months back. We are happy to have her back for a guest post and hope to hear her voice here from time to time. She posts periodically at her personal blog, The Purloined Letter as well.

Inspired by Euell Gibbons Stalking The Wild Asparagus, we recently harvested acorns.

acorn pile

Actually, we planned to try foraging for acorns last year, but we were foiled by last fall's unexpected and troubling lack of acorns of all types.

David and our son Abraham went out foraging on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Having no oak trees in our own small yard was not a problem. Our neighborhood was full of acorns ripe for the picking—that is, the picking up off the ground. They set out with good intentions to harvest only acorns from white oaks, trees identifiable by their rounded leaves and bearing nuts supposed to be sweeter. But my family members were not the botanists they thought they were and wound up collecting from many oak trees. (All kinds of acorns are edible.) They broke open a few as they collected and sampled them for bitterness but came to no conclusions about which might be tastiest. As they walked the streets, many folks stopped them, curious and full of questions. David and Abraham were invited by strangers into their yards to collect nuts. They ended up bringing home acorns of many sizes from a variety of trees.

While we have read that some people leave their acorns out to dry before cracking them, we were too excited and curious to wait. We sorted through the haul and discarded the few acorns with small round holes signaling that worms got them first. We then spent the rest of the afternoon listening to a book on tape while cracking acorns and removing the yellow meats into a bowl.

shelling acorns

By the time we were finished, it was getting late. We put the shelled acorn meats in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Due to a very busy week, we did not have time to continue processing them until the next weekend.

On the following Saturday afternoon, we pulled out David’s grandmother’s wooden bowl and mezzaluna and chopped the acorn meats into a coarse meal. Foragers without mezzalunas could pulse the meats in a food processor.

mezzaluna and acorns

All acorns contain tannins, some more than others. The tannins must be leached out of the acorns to make the meal palatable. While we’ve heard that there are acorns in the West that are sweet, many East Coast varieties are high in tannins and quite bitter until they are leached.

We leached our acorns by tying the meal in a cheesecloth and then immersing it in a large saucepan of boiling water. The water instantly turned tea-colored. We let it simmer for another ten minutes, then poured off the brown water and replaced it with fresh water and set the pan back on the stove. After another thirty minutes, we drained and repeated. We continued this leaching process five or six times until the draining water was only lightly colored and the acorns were sweet enough to eat. We could have done more soaks, but it was getting close to bedtime. (Although we discarded the leaching water, we have since learned that the tannin water can be useful.)

removing tannins

When we were finished leaching, we squeezed out as much water as possible from the bag of meal. We then spread the meal on a tray and put it in our dehydrator overnight. Other cooks could put the meal on a cookie sheet in a very low oven for an hour or so, or leave it overnight in an oven with the light on.

dehydrating acorn meal

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As an experiment, we didn’t chop a dozen acorns that we had managed to remove intact from their shells. We planned to make "acorn glace" from Stalking The Wild Asparagus. We leached the whole acorns in the boiling water (using the same process that we followed with the meal but without the cheesecloth). After fishing the nuts out and letting them dry on a plate, we roasted them in a hot oven (400 degrees) for twenty minutes or so until they were dry and toasty. We then dropped the toasted nuts into a warm simple syrup solution (1 pt water and 2 pt sugar gently boiled), let them stew for a few moments, then let them dry.

acorn glace

Expecting a sweet bedtime treat, we bit into the beautifully glistening acorn glace—and our mouths turned inside out. The smaller acorns were bad, but the large ones were horrendous. No amount of sugar could cover up their intense bitterness. Clearly, we had not leached the tannins out of the whole acorns nearly enough. (I would love to hear if anyone else has tried to produce this “treat” and had any better luck than we had!)

*

When we took the trays of meal out of the dehydrator the next morning, the warm acorn meal had a sweet and nutty aroma. It now had only a very slight bitterness, about as much as black tea. We put the dried meal in our hand-cranked grain mill. If you don’t have a mill, you could use a food processor to grind the meal into flour.

son grinding

Because it is a fresh whole flour, acorn flour does not keep for very long. If you want to hold it for a few days, put the flour in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

acorn flour

Using advice from an online recipe from a favorite knitting blog as our inspiration, we riffed a variation recipe for acorn pancakes:

2½ cups whole wheat flour
¾ cup acorn
1 rounded TB baking powder
2 tsp salt
2 eggs
¼ cup oil (olive oil or coconut oil or whatever)
A small glug of maple syrup
Enough milk or water to make a batter the consistency of your favorite pancake batter (maybe 2 cups of liquid?)

David and Abraham mixed the batter together and had pancakes on the griddle by the time I came down for breakfast.

son cooking acorn pancakes

We served them with local maple syrup. They were delicious--with a slightly nutty, slightly earthy flavor.

acorn pancakes

We had so much fun that we are already collecting more acorns for our next feast. Next up: we’re going to try mixing acorn flour and our homegrown corn meal to make johnnycakes. We’ll let you know how it goes!

acorn stack

16 comments:

Woolysheep said...

Nice post. I haven't tried acorns yet. We have a plethora of pecans here so that is my nut of choice. I may have to try your recipe with them.

I had a grain mill question for you. I have been pondering a grain mill for some time now but they are a pretty hefty purchase so I am proceeding slowly. What grain mill do you use and would you recommend it to others?

The Raven said...

We love our grain mill! It makes for a small workout and needs more time than an electric one would--and grinds pretty much everything:
http://www.lehmans.com/store/Kitchen___Helpers_and_Accessories___Grain_and_Grain_Mills___German_Made_Food_Mill___33150?Args=

A friend has an absolutely beautiful wooden mill that does not grind corn, etc. and is a bit more expensive--but it is gorgeous:
http://www.novanatural.com/s.nl/it.A/id.1130/.f

The Raven said...

PS--We just used the base and the flour attachment for this project. (We do own the cereal flaker and enjoy it as well.)

kelly said...

nice!

Eco Yogini said...

that is VERY cool. I hadn't heard of that. I love that you have a grain mill... sigh- someday when we have a bigger kitchen and more funds (less student loans!).

Green Bean said...

Well, I can attest that the acorns out here in California aren't any sweeter. At least where I grew up. We had three giant oaks in our backyard growing up. When I was a teen, I tried to replicate what you did (in an effort to understand how the local Native Americans had lived). I'm sure I left out almost all of those steps. Reading your post, I'd give anything to be back at our old house with the ground peppered in acorns. What fun!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

This is so fascinating. I'm glad you came back to the Booth to share it!

Kellie said...

Ah-ha! I have a mezzaluna -- and now I know what it's called. Thanks! :) It belonged to my husband's grandmother, although I'm told she used it to chop gefilte fish. Blech.

Great post!

The Raven said...

Yep! David's grandmother used it to chop gefilte fish, too!

I would bet that neither of the grandmothers called it a mezzaluna. They probably called it a hochmesser (or sometimes hochkmeister, which actually means Grand Master).

Many mezzalunas have two parallel blades, while a hochmesser is usually single-bladed. Or at least I think that is right. Anybody have any more information?

flowers said...

I am so incredibly impressed. Back when we were living in a yurt we met some folks who harvested acorns for eating but we never saw the process. Thanks for walking us through it!

Elizabeth @ the Natural Capital said...

Great description! Just did this ourselves -- it's a great acorn year this year. Last year's small output was a natural fluctuation. The fascinating thing is how the trees all manage to coordinate their production.

We haven't had trouble with the acorn flour going bad -- not that we ever have so much that we keep it for a super-long time, but I'm pretty sure we've kept it on the shelf for at least a couple months with no ill effects.

jublke said...

I enjoyed this post. I appreciate that you shared your bitter with your better, so to speak. Love those tasty-looking pancakes. :)

Seven C's said...

Too cool! We did this just this summer! The kids and I gathered acorns, chopped them into meal in the food processor (thats all we have) and leached them in five gallon buckets with several changes of water. We dried the leached meal in the dehydrator and made some delicious Acorn bread which the kids dubbed, "Squirrel Bread" It was delicious!
I love your hand cranked grain mill. Where did you get it? Perhaps if I read further, I will find the answer. Oh, wait! I think there is the answer right there in one of your comments! Thanks!

The Raven said...

If you're looking for the grainmill from other vendors, you can search around on the web for the "Family Grain Mill".

It has an optional electric source, a meat grinder you can buy, and maybe a veggie shredder too? If you want them all, there seem to be a lot of good discounts. I've never felt the need to have the mill electrified, but some people might really appreciate that option.

Oldnovice said...

We have a young oak in our front yard that produces quite a few acorns. I've been wanting to try making something from the acorns and appreciate your explicit instructions.

I also have the Family Grain Mill and absolutely love it. We also purchased the motorization unit because we're old and weak. :-)

Over Coffee - the green edition said...

Those look so yummy! I could eat some now....pancakes for dinner is totally ok right?

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