Tuesday, December 30, 2014

All About Acorn

Early this winter I headed out with my dog for an underrated local food...acorn!
Acorns are the nuts produced by oak trees which in California are incredibly prolific. Indigenous people have used acorn flour in cooking for millennia. New archaeological evidence suggests that acorn may have made its way into Native American diets as far back as the middle Holocene.
There are two main acorn harvests, one in the summer and one in late fall/early winter after the first big rain.
We headed out after just such a storm and gathered the ripe fruit from a beautiful valley oak.

When selecting acorns for processing, only sound nuts must be gathered. Each nut must be inspected to be sure one is not introducing a burrowing worm into the basket. After all "one bad apple spoils the whole batch."

 Bad acorns exhibiting spot and perforation indicative of burrowing worms
Burrowing worm damage

Once the ripe sound acorns have been gathered they are set aside to dry in the shell. In a few weeks they can be cracked with a hammer stone and anvil stone and shelled...don't forget to remove the papery inner sheath!

Next the acorns are pounded (not ground) into flour using a mortar and pestle. I used a large sandstone bowl I fashioned with all stone tools a few years back.

Once the flour is consistent, light, and smooth it must be leached. Leaching is a process whereby poisonous tannins in the nuts are rinsed away with water. This process takes time but it is essential to produce meal that is sweet and non-toxic. The tannins in acorns are not nearly as toxic as say the cyanide in hawthorn pits, but there were a few deaths reported in historic times linked to raw acorn consumption. A group of starving explorers in Humboldt or Mendocino (I can't quite remember) saw the mortars, pestles and acorns left behind by a group of Native Americans who had run when they realized Europeans were near by (likely due to many stories of disease and massacres). The explorers, not knowing that leaching was essential, collected, ground, and consumed massive amounts of the bitter fruit thinking it to be edible in its natural state. Several of these individuals died.

The bottom line is that acorn must be leached! There are two main ways this is done. The first, the traditional method, involved digging a small bowl-shaped depression in the sand next to a stream. The basin was then filled with freshly pounded acorn flour and then water tight baskets would be filled from the stream and slowly poured over the meal effectively leaching the tannic acid into the sand below. After a few hours the purified meal would be  carefully scraped into another basket (the lowest layer in the depression would be left alone to minimize sand in the food) and this leached meal could then be dried and used for flour or gruel.
For details on this method as well as the spiritual and functional role of acorn in Graton Miwok and Sierra Miwok traditions please check out "It Will Live Forever" by Bev Ortiz and Julia F. Parker, and amazing book on the subject.
The second method blends the old and the new. Simply add your flour to a large glass vessel, add cold water, stir, and let it settle.

The first time it settles the water will be black with tannins. Pour this off and repeat. Keep the vessel in the refrigerator and pour off the water each day replacing it with fresh water.

Soon the water will become golden, and in a couple of weeks it will be clear...time to dry the tannin-free acorn meal!

For more info on this process please read "Acorns and Eat em" by Suellen Ocean http://www.californiaoaks.org/ExtAssets/acorns_and_eatem.pdf

I followed a bushcraft "recipe" for acorn muffins which produced something more like acorn bricks so I will not repeat it here. I also added a few dried apples from my family orchard. Although the acorn bricks were as dense as energy bars, they were quite tasty and really gave me energy! I won't go into the health benefits of acorn here, but go ahead and do some research on the subject, acorns are jam-packed full of vitamins, protein, and essential oils...truly an underrated food!

When I figure out a better recipe I will post it up. In the meantime maybe you (my readers) can experiment and leave a comment with your results! I have just heard that Chinese markets also sell acorn flour which has prompted me to investigate the use of acorn in Chinese cuisine. I'll keep you posted.

Keep the old ways alive!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rabbit and Lion’s Mane: Winter Stew and Sandwiches Too


“We got 5 min before class. Just found an oyster mushroom. Wanna come grab it?”- Me

“I’ll be outside in a second!”- Andrew

I got out for another rabbit hunt with my buddy Andrew and my trusty 870. Andrew was thinking about enrolling in the hunter’s safety course to obtain his hunting license so I asked him along. I figured that he would benefit from a little field experience before deciding if he really wants to go through the course.

The meadow was wet from a nice rain the night before and when we arrived the landscape was cool and still. Our first path yielded no rabbits, but our second sweep kicked up three. I got the second one and missed a shot at the third.

Andrew really seemed to enjoy the experience and I think he’s now convinced on taking the course and getting his hunting license!

The next day my girl, my dog, and I headed up to the mountains to cut a Christmas tree. As we crushed brush back in the woods of a friend’s land I spied the distinct shape of a beautiful mushroom on the side of an oak well over 30 yards away! It was a Lion’s Mane; an unmistakable beauty!

My girl cut the nearly five pound fungus free from the tree and a few minutes later she felled a nice cedar for the family room. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon!


My brother had been reporting daily of the loads of boletes and black trumpets he had been finding...he even found a copy of David Aurora's field guide "All that the Rain Promises and More!"

I had been finding a few fungi in and around town, but most were poisonous (though beautiful like theses yellow strainers and ink caps).
Then I found some puffballs, a Ma'am on motorcycle, and my first shaggy parasol!
I keyed them out using Mushrooms Demystified (also by David Aurora...the Bible of mushroom hunting). Though I am positive of my identification, I decided not to eat these guys as I have little experience with them and Aurora cautions that "some are made ill by them" (at least the latter two).

The following day I found a beautiful oyster mushroom on the side of a hardwood tree not 3 minutes walk from campus! It was a good thing too as Andrew and I had only five minutes to get to it, harvest, and get back to class. I felt a little guilty walking in to lecture a couple of minutes late, but it was worth it to see the stares of our peers when they noticed the massive mushrooms in our hands!

I got to cooking a couple of days later and used some of the massive Lion’s Mane, the oyster, and the rabbit to make a delicious seasonal stew! It was just in time for the rainstorm I have been praying for! Andrew and I ate contently in my office watching the rain fall and hatching plans to find more delicious fungi in the not too distant future!

Today I used the last of the rabbit (yes there is a ton of meat on a jackrabbit!) to make another tried and true recipe…pulled pork style rabbit and mushroom sandwiches. Anyone who doubts the delicious flavor and great texture of a carefully cooked common hare has clearly never tried jackrabbit prepared this way. It was amazing!

Well, the rain finally came. I’m getting outdoors and I suggest you do the same! Fear getting damp? Why? There’s no reason! And if you don’t you’ll miss out on the best season! Get out foraging for fungi and greens, get some shellfish, and hunt some small game by all means! The winter here in California’s wild side, is a season of adventures so do not hide inside. You can pick a mushroom in a minute (well maybe five), so remember get out there and “Keep the old ways alive!”  


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Wild Mustard Seeds: Late Summer Remembered

Well, this story is from a while back, but I thought my readers would enjoy it!


I remember being just a little kid browsing mustard greens with my brother as we roamed the orchards and fields of northern California. This season I realized that after the greens died back and the stalks dried out, the mustard plants that abound this area can still yield a wild nutritious and delicious harvest!

My dog and I headed out to a field that extends well over ten miles and likely boasts over a million mustard plants. We had a serious heat wave that week and the dried mustard stalks rattled like maracas in the wind. The seeds were ready!

We sampled around 25 of the plants we found, crushing the pods and loosing the seeds into a bag.

When we got home I first ran the bounty through a colander.

Then I followed up winnowing away the chaff from the seeds into the breeze.

Soon we were left with nothing but tasty mustard seeds and a need to cook up something that would truly let the flavors of this plant sing.

I landed on an old standard—North Indian Aloo Muttar (potatoes and peas in tomato gravy).

I wish that I had some rabbit or fish to pair with it, but I suppose some store bought antibiotic-free, organic, free-range chicken has to do for now.

The meal was exquisite…next year we plan to return for more, to combine that harvest with my buddy Alex’s homemade apple cider vinegar from the season’s apple harvest, a bit of homemade sea salt, turmeric, and other spices, and make our very own foraged mustard!

I will keep you posted.

Keep the old ways alive!