Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Balanophagy 101.....

I've been discovering and working with one of the huge abundances of the new land....ACORNS!   They drop literally everywhere on the property somewhere every late summer into fall.   Even when many oaks in the wider landscape produce little, at least a few of the trees in the yard produce enough to process for a significant part of my diet (and, more recently, that of my chickens....more on that in the next post) I think some of this is due to the moister niches available here, either from roof runoff, the drainage gully going through the property, or roots accessing irrigated gardens and septic field (now being phased out for graywater mulch basins).
        I tried to process acorns a few times living in Georgia, but there, the crop often entirely escaped my notice.  But here they clatter down on the roof for weeks and weeks, hit me in the head a few times, and carpet the ground in spots thickly enough to make walking perilous.  What a yield! 
        So here is my way of utilizing them for human food,  perfected by research, trial and error over the last three years.   I begin to gather the nuts once I see, upon cutting them open (normally I use a sharp pair of hand pruners) that a significant amount of nut meat is present.  The acorns don't have to be completely filled out or brown....the first ones are usually still green.  These early ones may be a significant part of the crop in a non-mast year (a year between heavy crops).  Many sources will say to reject these early drops as being wormy, but I've found them to be no more wormy than others, and since my normal method of processing separates the visibly wormy ones and kills any worms in the invisibly so,   I will make use of them.  After all, I'm after staple food here (currently I eat something or other with acorn in it twice a day), and am sedentary (as opposed to semi-nomadic, like many native peoples, who would simply move from heavy mast area to mast area, among other locations) so I'm interested in making use of off-mast crops and the early drops. 
        Whether early or mature, once I have enough to be worth processing for storage, I clip them in half with the pruners, and then in quarters.  At that point, I set aside any wormy or otherwise dark or decayed looking pieces.  Normally a worm will only damage a quarter or half of a nut, leaving the rest usable.  Once quartered, it is then easy to separate the shells from the nutmeats with one's fingers.  I often make evening work of this,  and with practice can do it (especially the final separating part) while reading, surfing, or watching video.
         Here again, many resources recommend grinding and leaching the acorn right at this stage, and then proceeding to cooking and immediate use, or re-drying, freezing, or other preparation for storage.  Traditional native people would store harvested acorns in the shell, sometimes with preliminary drying.  I am experimenting with this for the chicken feed acorns, and so far, a few months into storage, a significant number of acorns are moldy.  Perhaps I did not dry them sufficiently, or perhaps they had so many they sorted these out, or perhaps some other factors are at play.  I do know from research that traditional burning would reduce the number of worms in succeeding years' harvests....perhaps this is true of molds as well.    In addition, acorns vary in fat content, and the favorite of native people was the black oak (Q. kelloggii), which has a higher fat content and stores better in the shell than the lowland oaks we have here (blue oak: Q. douglasii, and valley oak: Q. lobata).  Being lower in fat, perhaps, lends them to dry storage out of shell with less danger of rancidity.
          So at this stage I spread the shelled quarters and pieces on trays or screens set out in the sun, bringing them under shelter at night or in the (rare at that season) rain, for several days until they are shatter-dry chips.  Then I put them into a bucket and stir them around with my hand, which separates the thin, reddish brown skin that clings to the nut meats (which, like the shell, is bitter and rich in tannin).  And then I put them up in tightly sealed jugs to store in our pantry shed, just like grain or dry beans.  I'm still eating on the jug put up in 2012, and have two 5 gallon jugs full from last year's heavy crop.
         So when I want to "do" a batch, I get out the desired amount (usually, like corn, we fill a smaller glass jar from the stock jug, and keep the jar in the kitchen, which holds several batches' worth), I grind them in our Vita-Mix blender.  Before this, I would use our hand-crank coffee and grain grinder usually passing the stuff through it twice (once on a coarse setting, then finer).  I dump the resulting flour onto a coarse piece of fabric in a colander, and then leach it by leaving it under a hose dribbling, preferably outside next to a thirsty plant.  I've done it in the sink, too; although it takes up the space in the sink for several hours, and the tannin can leave a brown stain.  With out comparatively mild tannin species, a few hours leaching is sufficient.  You can simply taste the meal.....if it tastes bitter or like tea leaves, leave it leach more.  Then I shut off the water and let the last of the water drip out for another few hours. (Ordinarily I grind in the morning and leave it to leach all day, then shut off the hose in the evening, put the dripping colander up off the ground somewhere and let it drip out overnight, preferably covered against bugs, debris, etc.)
        Now comes the cooking.   I use two methods, boiling, which yields a product very comparable to corn grits or polenta or grain porridge, and can be used any way one would use those things.  I have added it to chili, curry, soups, etc.  My traditional "from farm" lunch is acorn gruel, sweet or white potatoes or winter squash, cooked greens, cooked beans, and a bit of curry paste.  The type of potatoes or greens varies by season, though ordinarily there is some such around.  So far favas and teparies are the dry beans we grow, and ordinarily I soak, cook, and can large batches of them, so all I need do is open a jar when I need beans.
         The second method is baking, which I've been playing with for a while using a basic corn bread recipe as a template.  The acorn meal is mixed half and half (though I've been pushing the acorn towards 2/3 lately) with another flour (started with homegrown corn, and have some winter whear coming on this year....both work well; as well as various gluten-free flours such as quinoa, amaranth, etc.)  This is a powder raised bread and uses egg and baking powder to rise.  More recently I've been doing sourdough....making up the dough (before adding baking powder, salt, or oil) and adding inoculant (some saved from a previous batch, and if this fails or gets forgotten, some kefir, wine vinegar, homebrew, probiotics, yogurt, etc. all work, as well as the wild microbes that find their way in!).   This sits around for two to four days (the cooler, the longer) until it gets bubbly and tastes good and sour.  Adding some wood ash or baking soda along with the powder will react with the sour and help it rise.   Usually, I attempt further sustainability by doing both the boiling and the baking in cast iron pots, either in the solar cooker or in the embers of a woodstove fire,  depending on weather.    The resulting bread is usually part of my breakfast. 
        Isabel has also had success mixing acorn meal into ground meats, and I've also made her banana bread with quinoa flour and about 1/4 acorn meal.....

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