Forest Foraging: The Noble Oak, by Prepared Pamela

Nearly 500 species of oak trees populate five continents. In Greek mythology they were a symbol of Zeus, the “God of Thunder.” The botanical name Quercus means “beautiful tree.” The acorn or nut usually contains a single seed enclosed in a tough leathery shell and borne in a cup-shaped capsule. Acorns are 1 to 6 centimeters long and 0.8 to 4 centimeters wide. They take between 6 and 24 months to mature depending on the species.

Acorns were used as an important source of nutrition for thousands of years. They have been a treasured perennial plant fiercely protected by indigenous people in North America. The average life span of the oak is 200 years while some trees have survived to 400 years and more. An important participant in the ecosystem of our planet, they help to moderate the climate. In the photosynthesis process they produce oxygen. One mature tree can remove 6.6 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Stored in the tree’s tissues, the carbon helps to create its bark, branches, leaves and nuts. The tree is a source of fuel, lumber, habitat and food for animals and for humans.

Oak trees produce acorns at 20 to 40 years of age. They require a multi-step process from the initial harvest to final food consumption. Each fall I collect hundreds of acorns from my 200-year-old Holly Oak which thrives in my backyard in California. A single tree can produce more than 2,000 pounds of nuts. My own tree was once defended for many decades by local Serrano Indians as their important food source. I continue to treat it with the respect and care it deserves as an elder on the land.

Perhaps the earliest well-known person to appreciate acorns as food was naturalist John Muir. He depended on acorn cakes to sustain him during his long treks throughout the Western United States. He called them “the most compact and strength-giving food” he had ever experienced. Acorns are a nearly perfect food on which to thrive. Many indigenous tribes obtained 50 percent of their annual calories from acorns which contain protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber. They have a low glycemic index and are considered a good food source for diabetics. During World War II, more than one million tons of acorns were collected by the Japanese to help feed their people as their supplies of rice and flour diminished.

Collecting and Processing

The process of acorn food production starts with harvesting. They are typically collected during late summer and autumn with August through September being ideal. It is best to pick the acorns before they drop to the ground. Care must include discarding any that are cracked or contain dark circular holes. They likely have worms. Dropped acorns could become infected. Green acorns still attached to the tree are milder in flavor. The best oak species from which to harvest acorns are the White Oak and Live Oak, for they contain the lowest levels of tannins. The least preferred are acorns of the Red Oak, which have a very high level of tannins. After one collects the acorns, they need to be cracked open, shelled and peeled. They have a consistency similar to chestnuts. Cracking can be easily accomplished with the aid of a nutcracker or hammer. Submerge the acorns in water soon after shelling and peeling to prevent them from becoming discolored through oxidation.

The acorns must be boiled and drained with fresh water for a minimum of three to five times for 15 minutes each time with fresh water until the water boils clear. The water level in the pot should be twice the volume of acorns. It may take a couple of days to accomplish this step which will fill the house with a pleasant aroma similar to the fragrance of toasted coconuts. The boiling helps to leach the tannins from the acorn. The tannins can still be used to tan animal skins, just as they were in standard practice, for centuries. Other oak tree products have helped to treat diarrhea, asthma, and wounds as antiseptic washes. The hardwood has been valued for making furniture, and as chips for smoking barbecued meats. Today, oaks are a protected species in California and cannot be lumbered without a special permit.

An alternative approach to reducing tannins is accomplished by placing the acorns in a mesh bag. Then soak the bag in water for a couple of days. You can also use a stream to wash out the tannins. Remove the bag after 24 hours of rinsing, at which point they should be free of bitterness.

After boiling, the acorns now need to be dried. I use an electric dehydrator which will require several hours of operation until the meat is totally dried. It will take many days if you spread the acorns out on a flat surface to dry in the sun or you can use an oven set at a low temperature (150-200 degrees Fahrenheit).

Once the acorns are completely dried, grind them into a powder. This can be accomplished by using a food processor or by hand with a mortar and pestle. The ancients used stones to grind them in wells carved into granite bowls called matate in Spanish. Unfortunately, this method also produced ground rock particles within the meal, causing tooth wear and eventually tooth loss.

The final powder is a flour-like product. The taste is neutral, similar to potato flour. The meal must be refrigerated or frozen for longer shelf life. It can be stored at room temperature in an air-proof jar with a tight lid. I have used this flour in several baked products. The meal can also be added to thicken and flavor soups, stews, or as a breading for frying or baking fish and chicken.

Some Acorn Flour Recipes

My favorite recipes include the following:

GRANOLA BARS
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup acorn meal
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup raisins or dried cranberries
1 cup brown sugar
Walnuts optional
Water sufficient to make heavy dough
Press into a greased pan
(I purchased a NordicWare muffin pan
The receptacles are in the shape of acorns)
Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes

DESSERT BREAD
1 cup acorn meal
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1 egg beaten or egg substitute
1 cup milk or milk alternative
3 tablespoons oil
Combine sifted dry ingredients
Combine wet ingredients
Soft banana optional
Combine wet and dry ingredients into lumpy batter
Pour into greased loaf pan
Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes

A-CORN BREAD
1 ½ cups acorn meal
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg or egg substitute
1 tablespoon butter or oil
1 ½ sups milk or milk substitute
½ cup sugar or honey
Combine sifted dry ingredients
Combine wet ingredients
Combine wet and dry ingredients into lumpy batter
Pour into greased large pie pan
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes

FALAFLES
1 cup leached acorns
1 teaspoon cumin
½ large onion chipped
2 teaspoons parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cayenne
4 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Cilantro optional
Mix all ingredients
Form into balls
Fry in oil till brown
Serve with yogurt

KOREAN ACORN NOODLE SOUP
Korean acorn noodles, or dotori guksu, has been eaten in Korea since 4000 BC.
3 egg yokes
1 whole egg
3 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour from a mix of acorn, wheat, buckwheat, or other flour
Beat the eggs until very light
Mix in dry ingredients
Roll out dough on a floured board thinly as possible
Dry dough for one hour, cut into thin strips
Add fresh noodles to a vegetable or meat broth
Include your favorite vegetables such as carrots, bok choy, onion, etc.

ACORN PANCAKES
Use ½ cup acorn meal and ½ cup flour
Mix with other pancake ingredients
Fry in a skillet
Serve with strawberries or blackberries

Even though fresh acorns are tasty, the unleached tannins can cause stomach upset. Roast, season to taste, then enjoy as a snack.

You can find a variety of acorn-based recipes on the internet. There are also acorn interest groups on Facebook and other websites, whose participants enjoy sharing recipes.

The forest contains a wealth of edible survival options. You just need to know where to look, what to harvest, how to prepare and what to avoid.

You can make pine needle tea to accompany your acorn treats. Pull tender pine needles off of branches. I use Ponderosa Pine needles. Bring water to a boil in a stainless steel pan. Add pine needles to the water and reduce the heat. Simmer for 20 minutes and remove from heat. Cover and let sit overnight or continue to the next step and serve. Strain out the pine needles, sweeten to taste, and serve the tea hot or cold. I have also prepared pine needle infused liqueur. The needles are soaked in vodka for several months and produce a unique flavor.

The forest can provide all you need to survive and thrive. Enjoy the bounty of nature.

A closing thought: “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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