September

Acorns, Black Walnuts, Hickory Nuts, Elderberries, Wild Grapes

The earth is satisfied with the fruit of your works.......     Psalm 104:13

      
    The season takes a new turn as the vivid greens fade and the forests and the fields are touched with gold.  Fruits and nuts that have been quietly growing all summer suddenly ripen into their fullness.  The bounty of the harvest is all around.  The tables at the Farmer's Market are heaped high.  By the end of September the blazing orange pumpkins decorate our habitations, and the sweet corn gives way to colorful squashes at the roadside stands.  The ladies have their canning kettles going full steam as luscious tomatoes grace their kitchens, and the apple orchards are yielding their sweet increase.


    I love this time of year........I think we all feel a quickening in our spirits as the progression of the seasons climaxes in beauty and abundance.  I am reminded of the verse that says "Death is swallowed up in victory" as nature puts on her grandest display right before dying into the cold and silence of winter, and the blessed assurance of the certain resurrection beyond.  Oh, but let's keep our thoughts here in the woodlands of autumn, where the bounteous wild harvest beckons.


      In the spring we saw a flush of edible greens, powerhouse nutrition to refresh and restore after winter stores begin to dwindle and our bodies crave something raw and fresh and filled with life.  Summer gives way to the berries and fruits that give us energy for busy summer work and slake our thirst in the heat of the year.  Then comes autumn, when the nuts ripen, laden with calories and fats and dense nutrition, perfect sustenance for the long winter months ahead.  Black Walnuts, Acorns and Hickory Nuts grace the woodlands and parks with topnotch nourishment.  The old-timers around here eagerly gather in the Black Walnuts and Hickory Nuts, while the humble Acorn has been all but forgotten.


    There's also lots of late berries that ripen in September and we search the hedges and brushy places for the Wild Grapes, Elderberries, Highbush Cranberries, Chokecherries, and more. 


    My heart sings in gratitude to the Maker for such provision and our table is heavy-laden........

 

Let the field be joyful and all that is in it!      Psalm 96:12

Acorns

    Acorns are one of the signatures of autumn, all the essence of the mighty oak is distilled into the humble Acorn.  The sun and the rain and the moon and all the elements and forces of nature flow through the veins of the oak tree to produce the seed, the progeny.  The very future of the oak trees is bound up in each tiny Acorn.  According to Genesis 1:11,12 every Acorn is designed and programmed from the beginning of creation to yield fruits according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth.  Wow! 

Acorns have largely fallen into disuse by humans as a food, much less as a staple food.  The animals don’t mind, more for them, although in truth oaks tend to produce in such abundance that there’s enough for everyone to eat and plenty more besides to carry on the oak family lineage.  


     Acorns used to be such an important crop that whole cultures were centered around them, especially the many Indian tribes in California.  They even crafted beautiful baskets expressly for harvesting and processing Acorns.  Today few people have ever even tasted an Acorn, much less eaten a hot, buttered Acorn muffin, though many are dimly aware that they are supposed to be edible.   Perhaps this is because they are intensely bitter when eaten fresh out of the shell, unlike the wild Black Walnuts and Hickory Nuts which still have faithful people willing to go to great pains to extract their sweet, flavorful nutmeats.  Acorns require an extra processing step to leach out the bitter tannins that make them unpalatable in the raw. 


      Or perhaps it is because acorns have such a high content of fats and carbohydrates, undesirable traits in today’s culture, but of paramount importance in primitive societies for sustenance.  100 grams of acorn flour (roughly one cup) contains  a whopping 500 calories, 30 grams of fat, and 54 grams of carbohydrate.  They also rate pretty high for vitamins and minerals in a nutritional profile, truly a survival food of high degree:

Acorn Nutrition Facts


      I harvest Acorns every year, usually in mid- to late September.  The best places to harvest them are in grassy parks or mowed lawns as it is very difficult to gather them in the undergrowth of the woods or tall grass meadows.  Oak trees seems to have a cycle of production, so that the oak that yielded heavily one year might be dry for the next few years.  This can make it tricky to find a good spot as Acorn harvest tends to be somewhat hit or miss from year to year.  When I happen upon an especially good year for Acorns and an easy harvesting spot, I try to really stock up. 


     All Acorns are edible, but some are larger than others and contain less tannic acid so are much easier to process.   Oaks are divided into two main families—red oaks and white oaks.  Red oaks have pointed tips and white oaks have more rounded lobes on their leaves.  It’s the white oaks that have the biggest and the best Acorns. 

I try to get the fresh fallen Acorns early in the season, before they have started to get weathered or buried in leaf fall.  Sometimes they are green when they fall, sometimes brown, either way is fine for collecting.


      When I bring the Acorns home, I don’t always have time to sit and shell them right away so I need to store them.  The problem with this is that there is a certain little moth that lays its eggs inside the Acorns and if I wait too long, the larva will have eaten most of the nutmeat.  In order to kill these eggs, I spread my acorns on cookie sheets and roast them in the oven at 325° for ½ hour (longer if they’re green).  Now I can store them as long as I need to before processing them any further.

 

The next step is to shell them, and I’m sorry to say that I haven’t found any other way to crack them but one by one with a nutcracker.  At this point they look a lot like coffee beans!


      Once they are shelled, you need to leach the bitter tannins out.  This is done by boiling them.  I like to chop them in a food processor first to expose more surface area to the boiling water.  I find this leaches them much more quickly.  To leach them, I simply put them in a cooking pot and add about twice as much water.  Bring them to a boil, and boil them for about 5-10 minutes.  Then pour off the dark, bitter water and add more water.  Repeat this process up to 5 or 6 times until the Acorns taste mild and palatable.


      Next I rinse them and then spread them out on clean bath towels and let them get good and dry.  You must get them perfectly dry to store them or to grind them into flour.  Sometimes I spread them on cookie sheets again and roast them in the oven a little longer to get any moisture out of them.  The roasting also gives them a really good flavor.  Be sure not to char them as they are very oily and darken rather quickly. 

 The next step is to grind them into acorn flour.  Acorns are so oily that they might gum up a grain mill.  They are very much like coffee beans at this point so I use an electric coffee grinder or hand-cranked coffee mill to make the flour.  Once they are ground, I sift them through a mesh strainer to sift out any larger crunchy particles.  This flour can be stored in glass jars until ready to use.  I’ve never had it get rancid even when stored at room temperature for long periods of time.


      Acorn flour is very much like cornmeal in texture, rather than a fine flour.  Therefore, when I bake with it I like to use my favorite cornmeal recipes and substitute Acorn flour.  It makes wonderful Acorn cornbread, muffins, and pancakes.  I have also made Boston brown bread with Acorn flour, a very special treat.  I use the coarser particles that I sifted out of the flour to make a coffee substitute beverage, much like chicory or roasted dandelion root.

Acorn Pancakes
Acorn “Corn”Bread
Acorn Molasses Cookies
Acorn Gingerbread
Acorn Muffins w/Wild Apples and Hickory Nuts


   You can also cook with the whole acorns after they are leached.  To store them I either dehydrate them or freeze them.  Whole acorns remind a little bit of beans in appearance and texture, and they also make an acceptable meat substitute for meatloaf or other hotdishes.  Here are some recipes I have used for whole acorns:


Acorn Hotdish
Acorn Burgers
Chili Con Acorn
Acorn "Meat"Loaf


      So next time you’re at the park and find a good Acorn fall, bring a few home and experiment!  You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how utterly delicious Acorns are if you take the time to prepare them! 

Processing Acorns Step by Step


Here's some good links on Acorns if you wish to investigate them further:
Backwoods Home Magazine: Harvesting the Wild Acorns
How to Harvest the Abundant Acorn Crop (and the Squirrels Too!)
Wild Food School: Acorns as a Human Foodstuff
How to Use Acorns For Food and Bread 
Acorns: A Major North American Indian Food
Acorns and Eat'em Online Book  by Suellen Ocean
Korean Acorn Jello
How To Whistle An Acorn Cap

Black Walnuts

    Black Walnuts are very common in southwestern Wisconsin where I live.  The wood is so valuable that there are many stands of Black Walnuts intentionally planted, and they in turn have spawned lots and lots of wildlings.  The nuts seem to sprout quite readily and I'm always pulling the baby trees out of my garden where the squirrels buried them the year before. 
Black Walnuts are not too hard to identify in the fall with their large round nuts and compound leaves which turn bright yellow in the fall.  Once you get an eye for them you can spot them easily even while driving down the road, and when out walking you'll can't help but notice the loads of large green fruits scattered on the ground underneath the trees.  You probably won't have to go too far to find a good harvest of Black Walnuts.  They seem to be pretty reliable in bearing from year to year, and some years bring forth bumper crops.  It is quite easy to fill up gunny sacks full with these ubiquitous nuts, but it's a whole 'nother story to shell them.  There's even an invention for picking up Black Walnuts without having to bend over!
It takes a good deal of ingenuity to shell Black Walnuts.  The old-timers around here have invented all kinds of gadgets to try to make the task of hulling and shelling them more efficient, but for the most part it's a tedious and time-consuming project.  Fortunately there are still some dedicated nutcrackers out there who understand the value of this tremendous food source, and continue to keep the tradition alive. 

 

Unlike Hickory Nuts, whose hulls are divided and fall off of the inner nut quite readily, the Black Walnut is encased in a thick, green, seamless hull.  The hull is so thick that the Walnut will be almost as big as a tennis ball when you start out, but the nut itself is only about the size of a good-sized acorn.  The Black Walnut hull has a green rind on the outside, but the inner hull is pitch black and this will stain hands, clothes, tools, and work surfaces.  Handling them by hand will result in blackened hands that will take weeks to wear off, so the first challenge is figuring out how to get the hulls off.   This wonderful staining ability of the Black Walnut hulls is harnessed by dye-makers to yield a beautiful deep brown color. 

Once you have a good pile of nutmeats, then the fun really begins as you can have a good time in the kitchen with these!  Black Walnuts have a unique flavor that may be a bit strong for one of those immature palettes.  They have a strong, earthy flavor that will dominate your recipe.  They are considered a gourmet item so it shouldn't be too hard to get your family accustomed to this exotic new flavor.  They really don't taste like any other nut, there's just nothing to compare them to!


    Black Walnut recipes abound.  Just punch in Black Walnut on a search engine and you'll have lots to choose from.  It takes a little experimenting in the kitchen to find out how your family likes them.  I have tried them in apple crisps and chocolate chips cookies and got low ratings from the family.  They seem to prefer them in cakes and salads and rice pilafs.  Some folks like them in ice creamOthers like the flavor so much they have actually developed a Black Walnut flavoring product that you can use to dress your recipes up with that unique Black Walnut flavor.

The definitive website on Black Walnut is by Hammons Product Company:
American Eastern Black Walnuts


This site includes, among other things, an excellent recipe page:
Walnut World Baking


and a nutritional profile:
Black Walnut Nutrition Facts

Hickory Nuts

Hickory Nuts are probably the best wild nut going.  They are closely related to pecans  (in fact pecans are a hybridized Hickory Nut) and taste something like sweet pecan-flavored walnuts.  Anything I bake with Hickory Nuts turns out extra special good!


    If you don't have a good source for pre-shelled Hickory Nuts, you'll have to really be on your toes to find a good tree.  It's possible to find one on a hike deep in the woods that is bearing, but I've had much better luck in parks, rural waysides and even graveyards where trees have lots of room to spread out and grow and the ground underneath is cleared of brush and regularly mowed.  There are a few different varieties of Hickory, but the only one that is considered bitter and unedible is the Pignut Hickory.

Hickory Nuts grow inside thick green hulls, the same as Black Walnuts do, but their hulls are divided into sections and fall right apart when they are ripe so they are far less labor intensive than Black Walnuts.  The nutshells are quite hard so you'll need a good set of tools to bust 'em open, and a nutpick besides to dig the meats out.  On average, it takes approximately 220 nuts to produce one pound of meat. Time spent to produce this one pound is approximately four hours!  You can also store the nuts in their shells indefinitely and just crack 'em as you need 'em.


    I store my Hickory Nuts in the freezer to prevent any chance of these precious nuts going rancid or becoming prey to mice or other scavengers.  Once I have a store of them in my freezer, I'm ready to bake!  You can substitute Hickory Nuts for any recipe that calls for walnuts or pecans.  Here are my favorite Hickory Nut recipes (note: you can use walnuts instead of Hickory Nuts if you want to try these yummy recipes out but don't have any of the wild ones.)

Maple Hickory Nut Apple Crisp
Hickory Wild Rice Salad
Hickory Pie
Hickory Sandies

Maple Hickory Granola
Wild Rice Hickory Nut Stuffing

Hickory Nut Pemmican 
A high-quality Hickory Nut oil is available on the market with all kinds of health claims attributed to it:
Refined Pure Hickory Oil

It is also possible to tap Hickory trees in the same way that Maple trees are tapped to make a sweet nourishing syrup:
Hickory Syrup


And here's a few hot links to check out for more information on Hickory Nuts:
Facts on Hickory Nuts   
Slow Foods USA: Shagbark Hickory Nuts
Gathering Wild Hickory Nuts

Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis)

    Elderberries are very common in farm country.  They like to grow along the edges of open, sunny farm fields.  They are easy to notice in June when they flower as the bushes will be covered will enormous panicles of lacy white flowers, up to a foot in diameter.  After their showy display, they kind of fade into the green while they incubate their berries.  Then in September they become noticeable again as they sport large clusters of beautiful shining magenta-colored berries.


Here's a beautiful photo shoot of Elderberry:
Bomengids: Black elderberry

There are a couple of varieties of Elderberry here in Wisconsin.  Up north there is the Red Elder which yields small clusters of bright red berries.  This Elder is poisonous.  Edible Elder always has the purply-black berries.


     In June when the flowers are in full bloom, I gather in a quantity for medicinal use, particularly winter cold and flu remedies.   I like to dry the flowers for tea and I also make an infused oil with them, which later I turn into an Elder Blossom ointment. 


    The flowers can also be used for food in a variety of ways.  Some folks make a refreshing beverage from the elder blossoms.  Elderflower fritters  recipes are in nearly all the wild food cookbooks.  You can also comb the flowers off of the clusters and stir them into batters for pancakes, muffins or cakes, in much the same way that I use Dandelion blossoms.


     The Elder bush is a veritable pharmacy in itself and herbalists for centuries have used its flowers, leaves, bark, berries, and roots for medicine.  I have thus far limited myself to the flowers and berries, but this is an herb that I have often desired to get more intimate with as it has such fascinating lore and history associated with it.

Elderberries have been gaining some notoriety of late as an anti-viral and has been appearing more and more in the alternative medicine shops in the form of cough syrups, tinctures, teas and other preparations.  The most famous Elder product is called Sambucoland is widely distributed.  There is also a European product called Rubini that has numerous health claims attributed to it.  I like to take advantage of these anti-viral claims and include it often in my own home-made winter health recipes, mainly teas and syrups.

The berries when they ripen in September are practically begging to be picked.  The big round umbels are just heavy-laden with berries and quite tempting to behold.  Their flavor right from the bush leaves a little to be desired, however; a little bland and odd-tasting.  It is very easy to pick the berries by the bucketful in no time, especially if you beat the birds to them and they are still heavy and full.

In the kitchen, processing can take a little time, depending on how you plan to use them.  I like to take the path of least resistance at such a busy time of the year, so I put the whole clusters in my steamjuicer  and bottle the juice for later.  I always save my pure Elderberry juice for cough syrups.  Elder syrups are quite expensive at the store!!!!


     If you want to try making pies or jams or otherwise cook and bake with them, you’ll have to pick all the berries off the clusters.  This can be very time-consuming.  The best trick I have found for this task is using an old comb and combing them off.  Some folks use a fork to this end.

Once you’ve got them all picked you can freeze them by simply popping them into freezer bags.  Or you can dry them in a dehydrator for teas or trail mixes.  Elderberries have tiny seeds in them that give them a lightly crunchy texture but don’t need to be de-seeded to be eaten.


     The Amish around here make elderberry jam, usually with lemon.  Personally, I’m not fond of Elderberries by themselves, they just taste a little strange, even when sweetened, and my family agrees.  We like to mix them with apples, which makes them much more friendly to the palate.  I make ElderApple jellies and juices each year.


     Elderberry wine is an ancient beverage, made from either the flowers or the berries.  You can even purchase the dried berries for home wine-making.  There are a few wineries around that specialize in Elderberry wine:


Wyldewood Cellars
Nuyaka Creek Winery


Here's a wine-making recipe:
Jack Keller's Winemaking: Elderberries


Here's a few recipe pages to give some ideas for what to do with your Elderberries and flowers:
Paul's Elderberry Page
Just Berry Recipes: Elderberry Recipes
Elderberry Recipes

Wild Grapes


And you drank wine, the blood of the  grapes………     Deut 32:14

    
Wild grapes are very common throughout North America.  There are infinite varieties of Wild Grapes that each yield their own subtle flavor variations, much like vintage wines.  For example, a particular variety of grapes grown in southern France will yield a distinctly unique flavor if grown in northern France.    Wine tasters thrive on this stuff.   Wild Grapes have the same idiosyncrasies but unfortunately don’t enjoy the same attention from the connoisseurs.  Fortunately there are folks like Jack Keller, who is very keen on the Wild Grapes and has an excellent website that catalogues and profiles them.


     Wild Grapes are sometimes called Fox Grapes or in the south, Muscadines and Scuppernongs.
     I’m not too choosy about the varieties, if there’s an abundance of grapes somewhere at harvest time, that’s what I bring home.  They seem to vary in fruitage each year, a heavy-bearing vine one year might be barren the next, so I have to keep my eyes open and try to remember where the good spots were when September rolls around.


     The Wild Grapes start ripening in late August, but I generally like to let a frost sweeten them up before I harvest.  The last few years here we haven’t frosted until mid-October, so I’ve had to get them when without the nip of the frost.  Each cluster has grapes at various stages of ripening.  They are not bred or genetically manipulated to all ripen at the same time so you have to go for it when the dark purple is the dominant color and don’t worry about getting a few greens one in the mix.


     I harvest the Grapes with handpruners though you can get away with just snapping the clusters off by hand.  I like to find a spot where I can bring in at least a bucketful to make it worth my while but I’ve been known to process smaller batches just as well.


     In the kitchen, I use my trusty steamjuicer to turn them into juice.  It is by far the quickest, most efficient way to process the grapes.  The only downside is that the juice is cooked, which kills the living enzymes and natural yeasts present on the grapes if you’re wanting to make wine.  I always put a little honey in each jar that I pour the juice off into to bring out the flavors. 

I make fresh, raw Wild Grape juice sometimes, too.  I have used a Victorio Strainer with a berry screen attachment for this and it worked pretty well.  You can take the time to pick the all the grapes off the clusters, but I’ve actually run them through still on the little vines and it worked fine for me.   Wild Grapes are so juicy that any of the juicing equipment out there will probably work.


     The juice is like medicine to me.  It tastes like it is extremely rich in minerals, and women seem to especially be fond of it.  It is not nearly as sickeningly sweet as commercial grape juice and has a wonderful tangy, sour flavor to it.  Like all pure, wild juices it is very intense and full-flavored.  It’s not meant to be drunk by the glassful like our store juices.  A small shot glass is plenty enough to satisfy.  I especially love to mix the Wild Grape juice with the fresh apple cider that is flowing out of the presses this time of year.

 

We don’t partake of alcohol in my home, so I don’t experiment with wine-making much but recipes abound for using your Wild Grapes in this way.  I like to think of my Wild Grape juice as “new wine” and it makes a very special communion wine.


For lots of great ideas for using your Wild Grape juice click here.

Grape Leaves

     During the summer, the leaves of the Wild Grapes make an interesting food.  There is a custom in the Middle East of wrapping seasoned rice dishes inside Grape leaves, making little rolls that my husband says look like fat cigars.  These are called "dolmas" in Greek or Stuffed Grape Leaves in English.  You can do a search on Stuffed Grape Leaves and find a surprising variety of recipes depending on the region it comes from, whether Greece, Turkey, Israel or some other Middle Eastern land.


     June or July is the best time to harvest the leaves.  You need to be sure to get the biggest minty green ones you can find.  They should be about as big as a woman’s open hand.  It’s best to get them before they turn a darker shade of green as the lighter ones will be much tenderer as an end product.

I harvest lots of them because this will be my Grape leaves for the whole year.  They will be stored for longkeeping in a brine.  My Dolma recipe makes about 3 dozen at a time, so I like to harvest something like 200 leaves!  It actually goes pretty fast, even in the kitchen.  Making the Dolmas takes a lot longer than harvesting and brining the leaves.


     If you can’t make your brine right away, just keep the leaves in plastic bags in the fridge for up to a week until you find some time to put them up.

There are a number of ways to make brine for your Grape Leaves.  I am including some links on this so you can explore your options:
Recipe Goldmine: Canning Grape Leaves
Ellen's Kitchen: Eating Grapevine Leaves
Preserving Grape Leaves


Here’s how I do it:

     First I mix up a batch of the brine recipe.

     I store my Grape leaves in wide-mouthed quart Mason jars.  Each jar holds 3 dozen or 36 leaves.  (200 leaves are only 6 quarts!)

I stack the Grape leaves one on top of the other until I have a stack of 12 (1 dozen).  Then I roll up this stack into a tight roll and put it in the jar.  Then I make 2 more rolls like this to fill the jar.  Then I pour the brine over the rolls of leaves until the jar is full and cap it.

     When I have all the jars filled and capped, I leave them to sit out on a counter for 48 hours on a towel, as there will be a little leakage.  This causes a healthy lacto-fermentation process to begin.  Then after 48 hours I put all the jars in the fridge and forget about them for at least a month.  They will keep all year like this.  I just line the jars up at the back of one of the shelves in the fridge so they are out of the way.  There are brine recipes that don’t require refrigeration or even store-bought grape leaves for sale at ethnic food stores or some co-ops.  You can even buy canned dolmas!


    Making the dolmas is fun!  They can be a real conversation piece at a potluck.  You just need to make a rice filling recipe ahead of time, roll the filling into individual leaves, slather them with olive oil and lemon juice, and chill!

Here's my personal recipe:
Stuffed Wild Grape Leaves


Here’s a few other stuffed grape leaves recipe variations:
Cooks.com: Dolmas Recipes
What's Cooking America: Stuffed Grape Leaves
Middle Eastern Recipes: Stuffed Grape Leaves
Bitar's Stuffed Grape Leaves
Possum Grape-Leaf Pork Wrappers

 

Black Walnut hulls are also used as an important herbal medicine, mainly for external remedies for fungal infections like ringworm, or athlete's foot.  I have also seen them used in the modern fad formulas for parasites.  Care must be taken if they are used internally as large doses or extended use could be potentially toxic.


    Some people get a little income from their walnuts without all the work of hulling and cracking by selling them to Black Walnut mills.  The companies that buy them set up convenient hulling stations where they are hulled on the spot before being shipped to the mill.  They pay about 10$ per 100 pounds of Walnuts.  Here's some excellent fact sheets on marketing Black Walnuts:


Non-Timber Forest Products
The Naturalist Pages


    If you do plan to use the nutmeats, it's important to hull them as soon as possible because the hulls compost pretty quickly and the juices will permeate the inner nutshell and taint the nutmeats.


    Cracking them also takes a bit of ingenuity and determination as they are extremely hard-shelled.  If you plan to do a yearly harvest, then it would probably be very helpful to invest in some good nutcracking equipment.


Here's a dynamite photo shoot of Black Walnut processing from start to finish:
Wildman Steve Brill: Black Walnut


Here's another pretty good webpage on harvesting Black Walnuts:
Yard and Garden: Harvesting Black Walnuts

And here's how I process them:
Processing Black Walnuts


    You can also save yourself the work and still get the wild nuts into your diet from Black Walnut suppliers.  They go for about 10$ a pound. I sometimes find them at yard sales and church rummage sales around here, where Black Walnuts abound.  Sometimes there will be small ads for them in the newspaper, local shopper, bulletin boards, or on the radio trading post. 

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