Saturday, November 13, 2010
Bad Idea Saturday: Acorn Bread.
Sarlah dared me to do this, and I am apparently seven years old.
So some time ago, Sarlah sent me an article about eating acorns. The article had no recipes, a few tips, and a general message that I should cook with acorns, because I deserved it!
"Goodness," I thought, "Have I been unusually unpleasant lately?"
I have long suspected that acorns simply aren't very tasty. If they were, we would have domesticated them like almonds and walnuts. If they were, some of the hundreds of cultures that used to eat them wouldn't have happily turned to wheat in all of its beautiful forms at the very first opportunity. If acorns were tasty, hogs would eat the ones that fall into their pens before they ate hog food.
But because I can't resist a dare, I shelled a whole bunch of acorns, poured them into a cloth bag, and suspended them in the toilet tank. This is the sole practical tip in that article: replace the endless rinsing that used to be found in streams with the sterile toilet tank. Every time you flush, the acorns leech out a little bit of their bitterness. (The acorns will stain the water in the bowl a weak-tea brown. If you leave part of the bag outside of the tank, water will drip all over the floor. You will then have to explain that there are acorns in the toilet. It will go about as well as you might expect.)
I started looking for acorn bread recipes. An ethnobotany guide explained that 3/4 of the calories consumed in Pre-Columbian California were from acorns. It noted that the indigenous peoples of California were blessed with the ability to gather most of their food for the coming year in four or five days. It notes that preparing enough acorn gruel for the daily meals took at most one or two hours a day, leaving the people of California with copious free time. It also notes that they spent most of this free time searching for foods that were not acorns. Because acorns suck.
I found several recipes online, but they all seem to suffer from the "lotta butter, lotta eggs, lotta flour" problem. Those things taste good on their own! There's no reason to add acorns except as some bizarre ecological cachet! What's the point?
Huh. While I was complaining about that last bit, my mother wandered by and shared anecdotes. Apparently, my opinions about cooking with acorns have not changed much over the last twenty years, and are the long lost reason that I was... mutually agreed to not be the best fit with the local Girl Scout troop. I must have been really obnoxious about native peoples and their access to sugar, wheat, and baking soda. And they say we mature as we age.
The Internet recipes also rely heavily on common names for oaks. Several sites (and Cuervito) suggest eating only the seeds of the white oaks. The ethnobotany guide suggests that the preferred species were black oaks. There is a local species known as the Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana) which is closely related to the California Black Oak (Q. kelloggii). Both species are technically classified as red oaks. There's a sister clade known as the white oaks, and it contains the Blue Oak, (Q. douglasii) the Golden Oak (Q. chrysolepis) and a whole bunch of other oaks that do not have color related names. All the records I can find are iffy, because anthropologists are terrible botanists. This is a pet peeve of mine; I had to take a quick break from researching this article to spam my anthropologist cousin with information on oak identification.
I ultimately went with the Q. kelloggii growing in my back yard. Lazy...
But what of those acorns, sitting patiently in my toilet tank for... about a month now? I tasted them every week or so, and they never got less bitter. Today, I took them out, rinsed them off, and nibbled on one for a while. Then I spat it out and drank three glasses of water. Then I tried another: still bitter. Then I shelled a fresh acorn and tasted it: less bitter than the prepared ones.
But what is this? One of my friends just returned from a reskilling fair, where there was a workshop on acorn cuisine. She suggests boiling acorns for 90 minutes to remove bitterness. The part of me that objects to using quickbread ingredients objects to boiling things in a pot for a very long time. At the very least, the energy going into making the nuts edible is probably greater than what is strictly reasonable. But still- I now have a viable plan to make an acorn food product, it's already Saturday afternoon, and my cold leads to poor decisions.
(Makes like four tiny biscuits, because why would you want more?)
Take two handfuls of acorns. Crack them with a meat tenderizer or a nutcracker, and remove the shells. At this point my father will wander into the room, shake his head, and say "Somehow I thought that you would have outgrown doing inexplicable things in the kitchen by now." He will then go outside so that he doesn't have to observe the devastation being wreaked.
Take said acorns and boil for one and a half hours. Change the water three times. Peel off as much of the skin over the acorns as possible- Internet sites say that it's richer in tannins, though my tongue cannot detect a difference.*
*I do have a cold, and it was cook things with tannins in them day, (quince, unripe persimmons) so I may be absolutely wrong.
Remove acorns from heat and drain water. Pulse in food processor (sorry Cuervito!) until it resembles some sort of meal. Frequent scraping of sides will be necessary. (I suppose food processors technically violate the reskilling/native foods part of this exercise, but I purposely cooked without appliances for three years, and am confident I could do so again in a pinch. I could also live on oranges and potatoes and dumpster olive oil again. Part of some experiences is proving that it was a bad idea. Like eating acorns.)
Mix with a bit of water and notice that the dough is not at all cohesive. Grudgingly add a couple tablespoons of wheat flour to harness the glory of gluten. Perhaps a dash of salt? Does that offend delicate sensibilities? And a clove of minced garlic- interesting choice. Form into small oblong biscuits, attempt to wrap in oak leaves, fail, wrap in chestnut leaves, succeed, but only until the biscuits have gone into the oven. Bake for twenty minutes. Remove. Clean the kitchen to make future Bad Idea Fridays possible.
Okay guys. Guys. Everything tasty about this is based on wheat and garlic and salt, but I would totally eat these to survive. It's got a little bitter aftertaste, and I ate only one, and that one was eaten with about an equal volume of bad idea jam- but they aren't awful. They just aren't very good.