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Friday, August 10, 2012

Acorn Dumplings

 Acorns are an ancient form of food, and one that shouldn't be wasted.  A single tree can provide nearly all of the flour a person would eat in a year, and can provide a huge amount of calories, in a small container.  If you want to live more frugally, there is little that can be better than gathering some free food from the wild, and don't worry, there will be enough left over for the squirrels and the deer.
I harvest mainly from burr oak for a few reasons.  One is that burr oaks are fairly plentiful where I live, and are easy to identify.  The second reason is that burr oaks are fairly low in tannin, a substance that makes acorns bitter.  And the third reason is that burr oak acorns are big.  I mean very big.  It only takes a dozen or so to make a cup of flour, and so there is a lot less time looking for and cracking acorns for the amount of food that you get out of it.
There are some tricks to harvesting acorns.  The first is to look for tiny holes in the shell.  If there are holes, the acorn probably has acorn worms and will not be good.  You can also put the acorns in water, typically the bad ones, or the ones with worms will float.  These can be crushed and thrown to chickens if you do not feel like wasting them. 
I decided that since I have a significant amount of acorns in the freezer that I collected last fall, I should start to experiment.  Seeing how acorns are similar to chestnuts in the fact that they have low oil, and high starch then the two may be interchangeable in some recipes.
First I leached the acorns.  Leaching removes the tannin that gives acorns  a bitter taste and can cause a stomach upset.  To leach you can run under cold water for hours or days, or you can have two pots of boiling water.  You put the acorns in one pot, until the water begins to turn dark, looking like tea.  Immediately the acorns are transferred to fresh water, the tannin water is dumped, the pot refilled, and heated again.  Continue this until the water stops darkening (or stops darkening enough to care about).  As a side note, this tannin water is quite an effective weed killer, although this may be the hot water and not the tannin that is having the effect.  The tannin does have an intense smell that permeates everything, so if you can this should be a step to do outdoors.  There are other uses for tannin, such as tanning leather, or as an astringent.  I will try to cover ways to use this tannin in future posts. 
After I leached the acorns I stuck them in the freezer because I didn't know what to do with them.  I stumbled upon the next step by doing this.  The bag that the acorns were in was not sealed tight, and began to fill with frost.  After a few months there was no more frost building up, and I believe that the acorns were effectively freeze-dried.  After taking them out, they did not stick to each other, and easily powdered into a pale tan flour.  It still had a little bit of a bitter taste, but mostly tasted like acorns, a somewhat nutty starch flavor, almost like flour that was mixed with ground nuts. 
I found a recipe for chestnut noodles, and decided that this would be the base of my dumplings.  1 cup nut flour, 2 cups all purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk are combined into a stiff dough.  A small amount of ground pepper and ground nutmeg were incorporated into the dough as I kneaded it.
Once the dough was elastic I let it rest in the refrigerator for about an hour.  When I was ready to cook the dumplings I pulled off small pieces of dough with floured hands and made small football shapes, about the size of the thumb from the first knuckle to the end.  I dropped the dumplings into boiling water until they began to float, took them out with a strainer, let them dry a bit (otherwise they get gummy) and fried them with a little butter.  Overall the dumplings do have a wonderful acorn and nutty flavor with a hint of warming nutmeg.  They make a great side dish with game or other full flavored meat and gravy.  They seem to be a little dense and chewy to eat on their own, but it may simply be how I cooked them. 
Overall I think that my dumplings were a success.

The recipe again is

1 cup ground acorn flour
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
ground pepper and nutmeg to taste

Combine the ingredients as though making pasta dough.  Once you have a fairly dry dough, knead it thoroughly to incorporate all of the ingredients and to make an elastic ball.  Let the dough rest for about an hour.  Pull off pieces and make small oblongs (footballs).  Drop into boiling water or stock and cook until they rise to the surface.  Drain the dumplings.  Fry them with a little butter.

I think that this is a great way to enjoy acorns and may be the first step in a road to discovering more uses for this ancient and little used food.

One of the best books that I have found for using wild foods is Food for Free by Richard Mabey.   It has wonderful ideas on how to use wild foods and how to find new foods to experiment with. 

Live a hands on life

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