Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Accidental Balanophage: Acorn Cookies

Over lunch I made these acorn cookies from a recipe found here. They are not burnt. Really. OK, so I'll never become a food photographer.

For the acorn flour I used bur oak acorns we collected locally and kept fridged (most of them I plan to plan and grow next spring). I cracked the acorns and extracted the nut fruit last night. Yes, it took a while. This is Minnesota and "bur oak acorns" means 1) tiny nut, 2) thick shell, 3) not a lot of nut meat. It would be a different story with the Titleist size acorns down South.

At this point most environmentalists/urban homesteaders would lie and say that the process of cracking the acorns is "meditative" or "contemplative." Both are euphemisms for "mind-numbingly dull." But I got it done.

This morning I ground the nut meat to the approximate consistency of corn meal. I spread it on a cookie sheet and put it in a warm oven to dry - about 1 hour or so. It was by no means bone dry in that time, but more importantly: I was hungry! I used a coffee grinder to further grind the meal to a fine flour.

Here's the recipe:
1/2 cup butter (always a good start)
1/2 cup real maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almod extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup acorn flour
1-1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

Melt the butter, combine with syrup (at this point I discovered that melted butter + syrup = yummy. Who knew?) Add the rest of the wet ingredients. Mix dry ingredients separately. Add dry to wet, mix.

The dough was looking a little wet & sticky at that point (possibly because I didn't get the acorn flour completely dry) so I ad-libbed another tablespoon of flour.

350 degree oven for 15 minutes. (A trademark feature of a Chris Siems recipe is telling you the pre-heat info in the last line.)

After a suitable level of shock was expressed that, "Papa actually baked something without burning down the kitchen," the verdict was unanimous: Awesome. Loved by one and all - Alice, Katrina & Ethan. The shock was genuine. I once mistakenly used baking soda instead of baking powder to make pancakes (Katrina's birthday pancakes no less). They had that metallic flavor that is highly prized by... no one I can possibly imagine.

Excuse me - I need to go grab another cookie.

The Accidental Balanophage: Tools of the trade

Balanophage = Acorn eater.

I took advantage of a nice evening yesterday to sit outside and crack some acorns in anticipation of doing some baking. (Those of you who know me therefore know the absurdity of that last sentence - you can stop laughing now; I'm serious enough about the importance of RE-learning how to eat acorns that I'm willing to undergo the torture of spending time in the kitchen to show how easy, good and healthy it is!). Here are my tools of the trade. The rustier the better, that's my motto. I found that the needle nosed pliers didn't work. By the time it cracked the hull it damaged the nut fruit. The standard pliers was better. In the end I reverted to the most time-tested acorn-cracking tool of them all: my teeth.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Oaks: 400+ species or one species with 400 varieties? Part 1

The post heading is a bit of an exaggeration. There might be as many as 2 species of oak. Oaks naturally hybridize to an amazing degree with such a high level of "gene flow" that it's very difficult to determine where one species ends and another begins. From Wikipedia:

Frequent hybridisation among oaks has consequences for oak populations around the world; most notably, hybridization has produced large populations of hybrids with copious amounts of introgression, and the evolution of new species.[4] Frequent hybridisation and high levels of introgression have caused different species in the same populations to share up to 50% of their genetic information.[5] The high rates of hybridisation and introgression, produces genetic data that often does not differentiate between two clearly morphologically distinct species, but instead differentiates populations.[6] Numerous hypotheses have been proposed to explain how oak species are able to remain morphologically and ecologically distinct with such high levels of gene flow, but the problem is still largely a mystery to botanists.
Fagaceae, or oak family, is a very slowly evolving clade compared to other angiosperms,[7][8] and the hybridisation patterns in Quercus pose a great challenge to the concept of a species. A species is often defined as a group of “actually or potentially interbreeding populations which are reproductively isolated from other such groups.”[9] By this definition, many species of Quercus would be lumped together according to their geographic and ecological habitat, despite clear distinctions in morphology and, to a large extent, genetic data. Thus, although it may be difficult to place a definition on a species within a genus like Quercus, it is trivial and uninformative to apply the biological species concept to all forms of life.

The natural tendency of oaks to hybridize (and the ease with which artificial hybridization can be achieved) is probably - no, is without question - the most underexploited area of plant improvement in the world. If oaks had received 1/1,000,000th the attention from plant breeders that corn and wheat have received we'd have oak trees capable of growing 6ft per year and producing acorns in year 3. And I'm not joking.

I came across this cool story in an old article. H. Ness of the Texas Experiment Station (a man who loved his given name so much that he always went by the initial H; I'm guessing Herman) wrote an article for the Journal of Heredity in 1927 entitled "Possibilities of Hybrid Oaks: Further Observations on Hybrid Oaks at College Station, Texas." Ness wrote that the Texas A&M campus in Brazos Cty TX was situated in an area with very little forest species diversity. post oak (Q. minor), black-jack oak (Q. marilandica) and water oak (Q. nigra) in the river bottoms. (Of course in northern Minnesota that level of oak diversity looks positively rainforest-like!)

In 1891 a few live oak (Q. virginiana) trees were planted on campus. More live oaks were subsequently planted on campus, all of them descendents of the first ones. Many of these young trees were planted at great distances from the nearest live oaks, and in places where wind direction and obstructions from buildings etc, "greatly reduce the chances of any pollen reaching them from the trees of the first planting." Live oak trees produce female flowers at about 5 years of age, but do not product male flowers until several years later.

According to my old friend "Herman" Ness: "Yet, the female flowers on these young trees, apparently beyond the reach of pollen from their own species, fail but rarely to produce an ample crop of well developed acorns." So... only female flowers, no live oak pollen. How then are the female flowers fertilized? Well, let's just say that the offspring look suspiciously like post oaks (insert your own "mail man" joke here). More accurately, the offspring display a range - a continuum - of characteristics from (nearly) pure live oak to (nearly) pure post oak, and everything in between.

Hybrid oaks - the offspring of these natural of artifical inter "species" fertilization - often exhibit faster growth and earlier maturity than either of the parent species.

Oaks definitely challenge our conception of species. It's more of a continuum with millons of variations and tremendous genetic elasticity. And within that elasticity lies the potential to feed the world. This will be the focus of future "Oaks: One Species?" posts.