Pittsburgh-area food foragers think it’s nuts more people aren’t incorporating acorns into their diets.
“Acorns are really underutilized in America but are native food to the United States and fit almost any diet — vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, Paleo,” says Adam Haritan, who runs the Wild Foodism blog and hosts forage walks and classes around the region. “It’s kind of strange how we rely on imported foods from all over the world when, literally, food is falling from the trees.”
As a growing interest in all things local inspires more people to educate themselves about what they eat, foraging for items like acorns can be an ideal option for finding food close to home.
“I think, in general, wild foods are getting a lot more popular,” says Melissa Sokulski, Pittsburgh-based wild edibles expert who runs FoodUnderFoot.com. “With the local food movement, organic foods and fear of GMOs, people want to learn more.”
Acorns, found on oak trees in public spaces and backyards all over the Pittsburgh region, can provide a nutty alternative for flour with added protein, unsaturated fats and fiber for those willing to grab a basket and gather them. But when it comes to preparing them, the process takes a little more work.
Hank Shaw, California-based author of “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast” (Rodale, $14.99), calls starch “the forager’s dilemma.”
“It’s really easy to find fruits and nuts and greens,” he says. “Things with starch are always work, and acorns are no exception.”
Two types of oaks are most common: White oaks with rounded leaves have acorns that are lower in tannins and higher in starch; red oaks have pointed leaves and acorns higher in tannins and fats. Tannins add to the acorns’ bitter taste and, when consumed in large quantities, can affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
“Not all acorns are created the same,” says Leslie Bonci, UPMC director of sports nutrition. “Some have a higher tannin content. You have to be careful about that. It’s not that you can’t use them. They just take a little more work.”
The process of cracking, drying, then leaching acorns can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Haritan prefers to immerse acorns in water and decants them over 10 to 20 days. That process, plus cracking the nuts, which he does with a stone, can be laborious, but, “the more you practice it, the better you get,” he says.
Haritan uses acorns in porridge, muffins, brownies and bread.
“You can make it part of a savory dish; you can make it part of a dessert,” he says. “It’s all a matter of taste.”
Sokulski leaches using boiling water in two pots — When the water in the first pot becomes brown, the acorns are transferred to the second pot.
“It takes less than an hour, and the whole house smells like boiled nuts,” she says. “It’s a really good smell.”
While Sokulski uses acorns for flour in pancakes, bread and scones, another option is roasting them or using them for candies coated with honey or maple syrup, she says.
Shaw’s leaching process involves soaking the acorns, then blending them with new water “like a milkshake” and refrigerating the mixture. He discards the layer of tannins that rises to the top, adds more water and shakes. The mixture needs to be dried after the leaching process is complete — either on a baking sheet left outdoors on a hot day or in a dehydrator — at a low temperature, around 95 degrees, and turned every few hours. The drying process can take up to a day.
The resulting product can then be ground into flour.
The entire flour-making process takes about a week, but the result is a fine, restaurant-quality flour, Shaw says. He uses his acorn flour in pasta “in every way, shape or form.”
“I love the flavor, love the color,” he says.
When thinking about foraging any food, Sokulski recommends taking a guided walk or meeting up with a local club to learn as much as possible about what is safe. It’s also key, she says, to avoid trying to forage for everything available.
“It’s a good idea to get really comfortable with a few things that you’re 100 percent positive about,” she says. “Then, you’re putting yourself less at risk.”
Acorns with holes in them should be avoided, as they likely served as home to a weevil at some point, Haritan says. It’s best to look for bigger acorns, slightly larger than the size of a quarter. And, if it has a cap, don’t bother with it.
“That’s huge, because the icon of Thanksgiving and fall is basically a defective acorn,” Haritan says. “What the tree is doing is noticing there is a defect and rejecting it. If you pick up one that has a cap that doesn’t come off easily, it’s probably rotten inside.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view a good overview of the entire process, visit Hank Shaw’s site, honest-food.net: at h onest-food.net/2013/09/26/acorn-flour-recipe-cold-process
Source: Hank Shaw, honest-food.net
This is a recipe based off the Italian flatbread piadina, which is a specialty of Romagna and is essentially an Italian flour tortilla.
2 1⁄4 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour, more if needed
3⁄4 cup acorn flour
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons olive oil, more for coating dough
1 scant cup water ( 7⁄8 cup, to be exact)
Sift the flours and salt together in a large bowl and make a well in the center.
Add the olive oil and water in the center of the well and, with a finger or two, swirl to combine. When the dough gets shaggy, start bringing it together with your hands, then knead it on a floured surface for 5 to 8 minutes. Use a bit more flour if it is too loose.
Lightly coat the dough with more olive oil, wrap it in plastic and set it aside for at least an hour. This dough can hold in the fridge for a day.
Take the dough out of the fridge if you’ve put it in there, and let it warm to room temperature. Heat a griddle or a well-oiled cast-iron pan over medium heat.
Cut the dough into equal parts; Shaw suggests from 6 to 8. Roll each part out one at a time with a roller and then with your hands — they need not be perfect, as this is a rustic bread. You want the pieces thin, though, about 1⁄8 inch.
Lightly oil the griddle and cook the piadine one or two at a time for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it begins to get nice and brown. Flip and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes.
Keep the piadina warm in towels while you make the rest. Serve with some cheese, fresh herbs — green onions are excellent with this — and some high-quality olive oil.
Makes 6 to 8 piadine, depending on size.
Source: Hank Shaw, honest-food.net
2 ounces dried porcini, soaked in 1 cup hot water
4 tablespoons butter
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups acorn bits (from leached acorns)
1⁄4 cup pear or apple brandy
2 bay leaves
1 quart chicken, beef, mushroom or vegetable stock
1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne
Salt, to taste
1⁄2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
Parsley leaves, for garnish
Soak the porcini in the hot water for an hour before starting.
Heat the butter in a soup pot over medium-high heat and saute the carrot, celery and onion for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid, and acorn bits and stir to combine. Saute for another 2 minutes or so.
Add the pear brandy and boil it hard until it is almost gone, then add the bay leaves, the mushroom-soaking water (make sure there’s no grit in it) and the stock. Bring to a simmer, taste for salt and add if needed. Simmer gently, uncovered, for 1 hour.
Puree the soup in a blender (or use an immersion blender), then — if you want to get fancy — pass it through a fine-mesh sieve. If the soup is too thin, simmer it until you get a soup that is the consistency of melted ice cream.
To finish, turn off the heat and mix in the creme fraiche or sour cream. You can add just regular cream if you’d like, but Shaw says he likes
the acidic twang of the sour cream. Garnish with the parsley.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.