Acorn Preparation, Hot Water Method

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Earlier this autumn, I wrote a few posts on Instagram (@mallorylodonnell) about processing acorns using the hot-water leaching method. I felt they were worth repeating on here, especially as a mild season has meant there are still viable acorns out there to collect. In any case, here is my hot-water method for leaching acorns of their tannins.

First, you must collect your acorns. Choose freshly-dropped acorns that look clean and feel firm and heavy for their size. Avoid acorns with one or more of the following characteristics : a white patina, green or yellow coloring, caps still attached, holes (caused by the exit, not entrance, of a grub), or excessive dark or bright coloration. Sprouted acorns are perfectly acceptable. While there is a definite variance in bitterness between white oak group and red oak group acorns, the most important concern for collecting acorns is their freshness and quality. Size matters too – bigger acorns mean less work. For to be sure, there is much work ahead. First wash the acorns, then cover them with water – those that float are to be discarded.

The second step is shelling the acorns. I am completely convinced I have the best method for doing this. I heat up a cast iron pan with one layer of acorns until they are fairly warm and starting to discolor (from brown to an orange-brown). Then I remove the pan from the heat and crush each acorn the way I would a fat clove of garlic, with the base of my hand pushing down on the base of my knife pushing down on an acorn. The acorn will split naturally in two, and if you’ve steamed it enough in the cast iron pan the dark brown film (like the skin of an almond) around the acorn will come off with the shell. Discard or cut the bad bits off of any imperfect acorns such as those with small holes or black spots. Acorns can also be shelled after being briefly blanched in boiling water or even without any preparation, but I find mine to be the easiest and fastest method.

The third step is leaching the acorns. This is necessary to remove tannins from the acorns for both health and flavor considerations. There are hot and cold methods, we will cover the hot one here.

Fill your largest pot with water and bring to a boil. At the same time bring a smaller pot to a boil. I usually fill the second pot about halfway. Add your viable, peeled acorns (steps 1 and 2) to the second pot and boil until the water becomes quite dark (Euell Gibbons says “tea-colored” but think black tea). Drain the acorns. Do not wash the acorns or clean them with cold water, but you can let them sit between rounds of boiling. Put the drained acorns in the now empty second pot and add some boiling water from the large first pot. I try not to use a huge quantity of water for each round of this, maybe twice as much as the amount of acorns. Repeat this process until the acorns are a chocolate brown and have no bitterness in their taste. I usually find this takes around 3-5 changes of water for sweeter acorns and usually a few more for the bitterest ones. Generally speaking white oaks and live oaks are sweeter, red and black oaks more bitter.

Once the acorns are leached, you may chop or use whole in any way you would use nuts. Bear in mind, they contain less oil than tree nuts, so they will be somewhat drier and crumblier. You can also grind them to a meal (or flour, if you will) and mix with other meals or flours in baked goods (remembering that acorn meal will have no gluten). The whole or chopped nuts or flour can also be roasted or sun dried, the acorns will turn nearly black if one does this.

I encourage everyone who is interested in wild food to prepare acorns. It is hard work but absolutely worth it. While preparing them you may wish to consider the many generations of humanity for whom this was a necessary activity – acorns were a staple food long before cultivated rice and wheat. But most of all they taste great and have a flavor which has no real substitute.

How to Cook a Weed

2014-08-19_1408488617How to Cook a Weed takes its’ title from one of the greatest and most strange of American food books, the 1942 volume How to Cook a Wolf, written by the inimitable MFK Fisher. Released during the era of wartime rationing, it contains innumerable recipes, philosophies and approaches to living not only well but elegantly while stretching budgets and pinching pennies. The heart of this work touches something that has always been close to me : making the best of limited resources.

I won’t spend much more time singing the praises of Fisher and her masterpiece (believe me, there will be enough and plenty to come), but rather extrapolate on why that volume relates to our work here.

On the surface, this site is about foraging and using wild plants, herbs, mushrooms and medicines in the pursuit of a thrifty, healthy, green lifestyle without forsaking elegance or the pleasures of the table. This is the world of cucina povera–the cooking of the poor and the working classes. The best, most heart and soul-warming cooking there is. It is about making the most of what we have, and maybe realizing that we had more than we thought. There will be more attention paid here to the multiple uses and benefits of plants and mushrooms, and responsible and delicious ways to use and grow them, than botany lessons or identification guides. There will always be some identification content but this site is not intended to cover that well-trodden ground. Many have already done it much better than I ever could.

On a deeper level, this site is about re-examining our use of the food resources we already have, and understanding our responsibility should we choose to use the additional wild produce provided by our environment. Our culture is one of waste and gross negligence. I won’t be spending much time harping about that, again, other people have done it much better. What we are interested in here is solutions, ways in which we can rethink our environment from the woods we take a hike in to the yards and gardens of our own houses.

We have fought against the wildlings. We pay people to spray them with chemicals or pull them from the ground. Some of them might not be so bad. Some of them might even be a whole lot better than the denatured spinach in a plastic bag you plunk down your hard-earned cash for.

It’s time to let the wildlings in.

It’s time we learned how to cook a weed.

Why Forage?

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A natural enough question to ask nowadays, and as good a one as any to get the ball rolling.

Really, though, why do anything we don’t have to do? The need to make an effort to prolong our own existence has in many ways been taken out of our hands in the modern era. Sure, we still need to do something in order to survive – whether it is to work a 9 to 5 or simply go on the dole. Neither of which, to be honest, is usually much fun. Nor does it create a sense of engagement or excitement in our minds, having replaced those desirable states with a world-weary awareness of mundanity and toil. In both cases, the direct relationship between our work and our sustenance has been largely removed, replaced by a system of exchange based on pieces of paper. Fairly quickly on, the process of learning and changing and growing each season or each day in order to provide for ourselves becomes merely a matter of maintaining the status quo. Challenging our assumptions has been taken off the menu, so to speak.

The short answer to the question why forage? Because it is engaging, and it is exciting. It represents a contrast. The effort of procuring food from ones’ environs is far more interesting than your average trip to the supermarket. Walking in the woods or scanning the perimeter of an abandoned field is a dynamic, stimulating activity. Cruising supermarket aisles is just never going to be that interesting, no matter how colorful or unique the produce. And truth be told, most of the time we’re not looking at produce. We’re picking up boxes and wondering, can I eat this? Is this… real? The short answer to that is that it isn’t. And the effort involved in creating that type of food-like product places demands on our environment that we really have yet to fully comprehend. Even the whole foods that we rightly tout such as grains and vegetables have often been flown or shipped at great expense, not to mention harvested using questionable gas-burning machines and chemicals and equally questionable labor practices.

The long answer to the question why forage? Well, it’s long. Let’s break it down.

1) Foraging is what we have always done. You might not remember, but your mother remembers. And if she doesn’t than your grandmother remembers. And if she doesn’t… well you can’t go too far back before you come across someone in your family who did. They might not be around anymore, but nearly everyone did one kind of foraging or gathering in the era before refrigeration. It is a tangible connection with our past, as real as looking through old photos or visiting ancestry.com. And one doesn’t need documents on paper to establish this connection. Simply put, if you know where your ancestors lived then you can figure out in pretty short order what they grew and gathered and ate. And guess what? It’s the same stuff you can grow and gather and eat today, maybe even if you don’t live in the same place (one thing we can thank the modern era for). Now that’s a real connection.

2) Foraging is educational. I know, I know, learning things is supposed to be boring. That’s what our society keeps telling us. We parrot a notion of education being important but we constantly treat those who seek after knowledge with a kind of disdain. I’ve never been able to comprehend it–for me learning has always been exciting, and the idea that I would ever know all the “answers” is a foreign one. One of the most exciting things about plants and mushrooms is that NO ONE will ever know everything about them. Not even in the narrowest sense. The incredible diversity of plants and fungi even within small geographical area is nothing short of staggering. The thought that as intensely as I have studied these matters, I will NEVER run out of new things to learn is a constant inspiration to me. Rather than making me feel like it renders the whole endeavor pointless, it is precisely this that keeps me going. I will never know everything, but perhaps one day I will have a real comprehension of how deep my ignorance is. It’s a humbling and fascinating process.

3) Foraging is free (mostly). Anybody else seriously sick of paying money for every damn thing? I know I am. I’ve never been a serious breadwinner, preferring to concentrate on things that make me feel happy and fulfilled rather than ones that fill my bank account. Nine times out of ten when I leave the house these days I return having not spent a dime. This doesn’t please me for any miserly reason, in fact the money I’ve saved usually ends up being given to local farmers or artisans, plunked down in exchange for vegetables that I can’t or don’t grow, or fine local cheeses or honey or craft goods. Supplementing what I grow or forage with local, responsibly farmed goods is one of the big plusses that keeps me on the trail, in the garden, and–most importantly–out of the supermarket.

4) Foraging opens your eyes. Most people unfamiliar with forage think that it involves a lot of time spent in the woods and wilderness, being rugged and outdoorsy and climbing up trees for berries and so on. It really doesn’t. Most of what we gather comes from our own backyards, literally and figuratively speaking. It’s one of the first things you learn, especially if you begin by walking with a local expert or trustworthy enthusiast. Edible plants are EVERYWHERE. Humble, delicious wild plants are especially most abundant where human activity has left a deep mark–what we planties usually refer to as “disturbed ground.” And this eye-opening doesn’t extend to just knowledge of edible plants. After all, knowing what is edible means knowing what isn’t. And the knowledge of plants becomes very quickly the knowledge of trees, of fungi and mosses, of stone and soil types, in short the knowledge of ecosystems. People who focus on ecology are quick to hammer home the complexity and variety of the systems that they study, but they rarely seem interested (typical bane of the specialist) in communicating how ABUNDANTLY CLEAR many of these systems are. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how a transition forest grows and changes, and what the native and invasive plants are, and what kinds of relationships emerge. It only takes someone who is willing to look at the world with open eyes, filled with wonder and free of preconceptions. And the more you look, the more you forage, the more you will see.

5) Foraging is healthy. Not only does it quite often involve good exercise, it also means collecting plants which are nutritional powerhouses. The simple, oft-cursed stinging nettle delivers a level of vitamin content that should have commercially-grown spinach quaking in its’ chemically-enhanced boots. Even without really getting involved in the true medicinal plants or the medicinal aspects of wild edible plants, the pure nutritional content of this free and abundant food should be enough to stimulate the interest of anyone who would like to live more healthfully. Of course, our society likes to steer those people towards expensive supplements and vitamins, in short, manufactured goods. Unfortunately, most of what you will pick up at health food stores is just as manufactured and processed as regular dry goods, only sold at even more of a premium to enchant those who think good health comes with a hefty price tag. In fact, the humble violet (which grows rampantly in both yards and woods in my area every spring) contains four times as much Vitamin C in its leaves and blossoms as an orange and a full complement of Vitamin A to boot (over 100% of our daily need in one half-cup of cooked greens). This is but one of a multitude of examples, most of which are probably a lot closer to your neighborhood than the remote locales in which many medicinal botanical ingredients are grown.

There are an abundance of reasons to forage. There are also some reasons not to, but I don’t mean that in a categorical sense. Rather, there are times when one needs to know when to leave well enough alone, for reasons of pollution, law or ecology. That concept will be addressed in another article, for now it is enough to say that there are a multitude of pros and most of our cons are the result of habituation. Foraging seems strange and unnecessary to most modern Westerners, but a hundred years ago our own ancestors would have found our attitudes puzzling. In fact, many moderns in cultures outside our own and outside of the large mega-cities would simply shake their heads and carry on supplementing their lives with free and abundant healthful plants.