I spent the first few years of my life in a garden full of oak trees. I mean, there was a house there, but the part I remember the most is the garden and the trees. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting under those big beautiful boughs, staring up at the sky through the leaves. Needless to say, the oak is my favourite tree. Followed closely by the rowan tree, and then the lemon tree. If you needed to know.
In Southern California, there are quite a few different types of oak (quercus spp), but only one that has sweet acorns– quercus lobata: California valley oak. The rest of the acorns around here are unbearably bitter, and need to be leached before eating*. A post by Feral Kevin convinced me to give up looking this year, but last week when I was out hiking, I stumbled upon a valley oak that had branches low enough for me to see that there were acorns. There weren’t many, mind you, but these ones are immediately edible so they’re worth the extra time in gathering.
The hardest part about cooking with acorns is in the preparation (think fava beans on steroids). That said, they’re free, they’re delicious, they’ll stay good all year, and I never really had any problems with getting a bucket, putting on some good music, and getting down to business shelling things for an hour or two. Next year, if there’s a massive harvest, I think I’ll maybe bribe some friends with wine and get them to come and help. Peeling the acorns is a pain in the ass– you have to cut a slit, and then pull the inside bit out, and it takes forever and you get stuff under your nails. About halfway through the bucket I realised that if I cut off the bottom I could pull the whole thing open really easily, and it went a lot faster from there.
Once peeled, depending on what type of acorn you have, you might need to leach them. Butter, of Hunger and Thirst, chopped her acorns up into small pieces to leach them faster (which I will most definitely do next time I use a batch of bitter acorns). The quickest and easiest way to leach acorns is through boiling– cover them with water, bring to the boil, boil for fifteen minutes and then change the water, and repeat until they no longer taste bitter. This usually takes 8 or so changes. If you live in the Southwest and have sweet acorns, then don’t bother with leaching, just proceed to the roasting part:
Preheat the oven to 250. Roast acorns for around 2 hours, until dark and crispy and sweet smelling.
Then grind them into flour. I use a coffee grinder, though if you have a grain mill I’m sure it’s more efficient.
Now you have acorn flour. It’ll keep for ages. Congratulations.
The gnocchi were inspired by some delightful little gnocchis that I had last week at my favourite restaurant. I’ve had them on my mind ever since. I called my mum for some preliminary information on gnocchi-making (mum being the ultimate cooking resource), and she said “oh it’s easy. One potato, one cup of flour, one egg”. So I played around with that a bit.
Let me preface this by saying a couple of things: the key to keeping your gnocchi light and fluffy is twofold:
1. Mix your ingredients to a bare minimum
2. Use a light hand when rolling them out
You can also make the gnocchi in advance and re-heat with the sauce later, if you’re serving for a party.
Oh, and by the way, just in case you were despairing about acorn flour, I made some with regular flour too, and they were almost as good. Almost. You can see them here, mixed in with the acorn ones:
Acorn Gnocchi with sage butter sauce
2 large russet potatoes
2 large eggs
1 cup acorn flour
1/2 cup regular flour
1 tsp salt
oil, for sauteeing
4 cloves garlic
2 tb butter
2 tb olive oil
8 leaves sage
1/4 cup cream
2 cups arugula
Peel the potatoes, and chop into quarters. Bring a pot of water to the boil, salt, and add the potatoes. Cook until soft (like you would for mashed potatoes), around 20 minutes.
Arrange a potato ricer over a bowl, and, when the potatoes are finished cooking and strained, mash them all through a ricer (you can let them cool a little ). Add the flours and salt, and, using a fork, fluff the whole lot together using a kinda whipping motion. Whisk the eggs together in a separate container, then pour into the potato mixture. Now comes the key part. You might laugh at me but I swear it helps to keep thinking “FLUFF! FLUFF!” over and over again. Fluff it all together, using that same whipping motion, with a fork, in the bowl. Think light. As soon as all the ingredients are incorporated (it won’t come together in a cohesive lump yet), check the texture. Is it too sticky? If so, add a bit more flour. You want it to be the consistency of a good dough– not sticky, but slightly tacky. It needs to hold together, but not so much that it leaves a trail everywhere it touches.
Now, dump the whole lot out on a work surface, and take a lump of it into your hands. Squish it together lightly, and start rolling it out in front of you, using both hands and a very light touch. Think “giving a yoga adjustment to a very very frail person” or how I get around babies and you’ve got the right idea. Using both hands, roll it into a long tube in front of you. It should be about the width of your thumb. Then, take a fork and cut it into 1/2 inch long pieces. With each piece, roll it gently along the back of the fork (on the cut side), to create fork marks on one side. Then lay it aside. Do this with the entire ball of dough.
Heat up a pan on the stove, and add some olive oil for sauteeing. Add the gnocchi to the pan in batches, frying them on each side until they’re a golden brown colour. Remove from the pan, and add more batches until they’re all cooked. Dump out the oil in the pan, return it to the heat, and add the butter and olive oil. Add the garlic and chopped sage, over medium heat, and cook for a minute or so, then add the gnocchi, tossing them in the herbs. Add the cream to the pan, cook for another ten seconds or so, and remove from the heat and toss in the arugula. Sprinkle with parmesan before serving.
Gnocchi not enough incentive to prepare your own acorns?
Here’s a few more interesting recipes:
*I’ve done this, and they still turn out great, it’s just slightly more labour intensive. For great information about leaching acorns, and also some more recipes, check out my friend Butter’s website.
This post is shared at the Hearth and Soul blog hop.