Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Foraging: Acorns

I had a foraging weekend planned - acorns and chestnuts, pears and elderberries.
We got a 5 gallon bucket of pears that have just begun to ripen and found several other places to get pears if they turn out to be a good variety. We got some elderberries but were trying new areas so not as much as before (so many berries in locations we just couldn't safely get to). We collected a handful of chestnuts to experiment with since they just weren't quite ripe only to discover that the variety in our area are poisonous so out they went.
We got a small bucket of acorns to experiment with as well. Acorns have the potential to be a really good food source. Historically, they made up a large chuck of the diet. A large acorn tree can produce thousands of pounds of acorns throughout the winter. The variety of acorns run from sweet to bitter but all are edible with work. The more bitter the variety the more work. The trees we found are Red Oak and not all that prolific at the moment but we got a good sampling for experimenting.
I will say they are work but we watched movies while we worked on shelling and prepping so it wasn't a bad job. Being new to the process, I'm sure we wasted a lot more time than someone who is experienced. Thanks to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, I had good instructions on preparing acorns. We've got them ready for cooking but I haven't decided on a recipe yet.
I do want to explain why I want to learn how to use acorns and why I would consider adding them to my foraging routine. The flavor is not one we are accustom to and we will have to learn how to enjoy them. The work is difficult so most people would figure it's a waste of time. I wanted to share with you my thoughts on this before I talk about how to process them. As I sat with my bucket of acorns, I got to thinking about my reasons for wanting to learn to use them. There's a historical aspect. I like re-enacting the lives of my ancestors in small ways. I feel like I honor all the work they put into living so that I could live today. I like the simplicity of their lives and the work that I no longer have to do (makes chores seem so much easier if I remember how it could be). I feel more connected to them and to the earth they revered. Then I got to thinking about why it's important to me now.
I know that talks about the world ending usually are in jest. No one really believes the world will end. Me, I don't know. I don't know if war will happen or a natural disaster and life as we know it will end. It's possible that nothing will happen but I believe in being prepared. If I can learn to use the foods we forage, I am creating a skill that will save our lives if a disaster changes our access to readily prepared foods. I am teaching that skill to my children with the hope that it will continue to be passed down. To me, foraging and learning to use the foods is just as important as learning to create a shelter or distill water in an emergency.
So, off my soapbox and on to the technique. Acorns have a fairly soft shell. I still found that a nutcracker helped split the shell (using a knife or hammer is what is recommended but that came across as too dangerous for me). Using a nut pick I tore the remaining shell until I could easily remove the nut. The nut is surrounded by a soft fabric like coating. That should be removed before dropping the nut into a pot. The instructions had you drop the acorns in a pot containing water. I didn't use water because I worried it would take too long to peel the nuts leaving the nuts in the water open to spoilage. I did end up with some nasty looking nuts at the end so water might be a good idea (they looked fine when I was done processing them). I cut away bad parts and excessively wormy parts. This took the most work and I might not be so picky next time.
When peeled, cover the nuts with twice as much water (if 1 inch of nuts in the pot, add 2 inches of water). Bring to a boil and strain the water off. Cover with water and repeat. Depending on the type of oak, the number of boils will vary. It took us about 10 times to remove the bitterness from the acorns. I tasted the acorns at the beginning and bitter was an understatement. I repeated the boiling process until they tasted pretty good.
Spread strained nuts on a cookie sheet and roast at 300 degrees for 30-60 minutes depending on size and variety. When ours cooled, I put them in a ziplock bag and stuck them in the freezer so I can come up with a recipe. I'll let you know what we make with them.

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