- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - 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,” 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.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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