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San Francisco Chronicle – Acorns Make Surprising Dishes

APRIL 29, 2013

The journey – a pursuit of acorn understanding – starts on a cliff in Big Sur, wends all the way to a hot dog stand by the train tracks in Martinez, and climbs into the redwoods above Oakland.

It’s a trip that has history and myth, identity and environmentalism, fine dining and simple sustenance, and one that travels to the heart of what can be called California’s earliest cuisine.

The bread that inspired the trek was a revelation in a 12-course Taste of Big Sur meal at Sierra Mar restaurant in the Post Ranch Inn, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The nutty, earthy, almost indulgent bread, slathered with heritage pork fat, exudes the native terroir theme that unites the menu. But it also demands an ungodly amount of work.

The restaurant’s executive chef, John Cox, doesn’t bear that burden. He’s found a woman who does all that for him. Her invoices threw off his bookkeepers, though – they couldn’t believe their Zagat-celebrated chef was buying products from a place called Hot Dog Depot.

Korean immigrant Sue Chin and her husband have owned and operated the Martinez spot for nearly two decades. Raiders Hall of Fame coach John Madden has made it known he comes for the chili. Fewer folks come for wedges of the Korean-inspired sweet acorn quick bread or the acorn flour, which Chin sells in 1-pound bags for $19.

Her process is to soak the acorns in buckets until they float, cut the husks, dry them in her commercial oven, peel them, then soak them again, changing the water until it remains clear – which takes a week – before cooking them in the oven and grinding them into a fine powder with her Vitamix.

“So many days,” she says. “A lot of work, (which is) why nobody does it.”

Cox isn’t the only high-pedigree buyer. Clients for the flour include the Curious Kumquat restaurant in Silver City, N.M., and hot spot Momofuku in New York.

While Momofuko is one of the trendiest restaurants in the world, Hot Dog Depot feels rather timeless. On this acorn odyssey, that’s only appropriate, because the oak and its acorns were prominent thousands of years ago.

In January, deep in the forests of Redwood Regional Park and next to a large oak tree, ethnobotanist Jolie Lonner Egert led a group of people gathered for Tu B’Shevat, a sort of Jewish Arbor Day, in sampling bay nut truffles – espresso-flavored bites that you’d think were caffeinated chocolate but in fact are made of acorn flour, sugar, salt and coconut oil.

Egert is enthusiastic about all sorts of native species – on this walk she extols the virtues of soap root, wild blackberries and mugwort – but she’s nuts about acorns in particular.

“I love oaks,” she says. “They were the original California cuisine.”

While the mini, acorn-shaped sweet muffins she produced next brought gasps of appreciation from the kids in the group, she rattled off the proud provenance of the oak tree, citing one tree’s role as an oracle in ancient Mesopotamia and the tree’s affiliation with both Zeus and Thor.

She seems most inspired by the Native American relationship with the species, pointing out that a good 75 percent of Californian tribes ate acorns every day.

“They had ceremonies celebrating the acorn,” she says. “People would sing and dance and pray.”

In some tribes, puberty rituals include fasts limited to drinking only acorn water. Others tie umbilical cords around the tree’s trunk to enhance the child’s chances of growing up to be strong.

Egert uses a giant dehydrator to dry the nuts she gathers, and likes to saute chopped acorns in stir fries, add them to soups, roast the nibs with honey, and boil them into an oatmeal-like porridge. She envisions creating a line of acorn edibles, but has been using acorns and oaks as an educational tool for years at elementary schools, College of Marin and Gathering Thyme Herb School in San Anselmo.

“You can go anywhere with the acorn,” she says, “from mythology to ecology to culinary to the cosmos.”

There are a number of other things to recommend them, including nutritional pop – they’re protein rich, gluten free, low fat and loaded with vitamins and minerals – and have a very low environmental impact.

“Look at all the water we’re using in the Central Valley to grow rice,” Egert says. “Acorns don’t need that. And they are so abundant.”

Appropriately enough, that presents another place acorns can take people, beyond Big Sur cliffs, Martinez hot dog stands, human history, nourishing food and a better relationship with nature: The humble nut that sows the mighty oak can take us to a more sustainable future.

Gathering acorns

Here is where to get acorn flour and food: Hot Dog Depot & Bakery, 400 Ferry St. (near Joe DiMaggio Drive), Martinez; (925) 372-7177. For acorn flour ($19 per pound), call or go to www.buyacornflour.com.

Gathering Thyme Herb School, 226 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. (at Bank Street), San Anselmo; (415) 524-8693. www.gatheringthyme.com

Sierra Mar, 47900 Hwy. 1 (in Post Ranch Inn), Big Sur; (831) 667-2800. www.postranchinn.com/dining

 Sue Chin’s Sweet Acorn Bread

Serves 10 to 12

Adapted from Sue Chin’s quick bread recipe. Chin says she sometimes substitutes rice flour for the all-purpose flour to make a gluten-free loaf. To buy acorn flour, go to www.buyacornflour.com, or call (925) 372-7177.

Pan spray
1 cup acorn flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, to taste
1 cup buttermilk (shake the carton before pouring)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped raw walnuts
Instructions: Place the rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°. Coat an 8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch loaf pan with pan spray.

Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, oil and sugar; add to dry ingredients and stir until blended. Fold in the raisins and walnuts.

Without delay, scrape the dough into the prepared baking pan. Bake 40-45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.

Per serving: 271 calories, 5 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 16 g fat (2 g saturated), 36 mg cholesterol, 267 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Mark C. Anderson is a food editor, columnist, blogger, photographer and gardener in Seaside (Monterey County).

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