You can shake them off the tree. You can buy them by the (expensive!) bag on the roadside en route to Magdalena on pilgrimage for Dia de San Francisco. You can sometimes find them in small Mexican markets in Tucson–if you ask. These are bellotas, a seasonal treat of late summer gathered from the desert oak grasslands and woodlands flanking our sky islands.
Tia Marta here to share a recipe learned on a trip recently to the Ndee Nation, to the Western Apache Traditional Foods Festival. With my talented friend Dr. Letitia McCune (known as BotanyDoc) we enjoyed this special event where elders and young people together were celebrating and sampling their harvest of heirloom crops and wild mountain foods. Botanist and diabetes-nutritionist McCune has recently provided the Ndee Nation with nutritional analyses of their ancient, honored foods. It’s eye-opening to learn how important the traditional Native foods are for health and disease prevention.
The breeze was full of delicious aromas of oakwood smoke, pit-roasted corn in the husk and juicy banana yucca pods (…that’s another post!) We watched as the Ndee cooks slowly simmered locally-farmed squash and chunks of range beef over the open fire. They had prepped dough to pull into ribbons then tore pieces to drop into the stock as dumplings. Over some hours, we kept returning to the cook-fire to watch the stew process. Whole corn cobs covered with plump kernels went into the giant pot. At last the cooks brought out the precious acorn flour they had ground from the chich’il (Quercus emoryi) they’d collected this summer and stored carefully for feast occasions. With the acorn flour the soup stock became thicker and “creamier.”
Acorns are chuck-full of healthy oils that are akin to olive oil, complex carbs that slow down the release of sugars into the bloodstream, enabling sustained energy and blood sugar balancing. It is no surprise that Indigenous people all over the planet have used acorns wherever oaks naturally grow. The big issue with most acorns is their high tannin content, a chemical that can be damaging internally, but which can be easily leached out with water treatments beforehand. Fortunately –hooray for our Emory oak acorn!–bellota–it is one of the few acorns which has low tannin content and can be eaten raw right off the tree!
Here’s a recipe for the Apache Acorn Stew that we tasted in delight at the Festival, here adapted to serving 8-10 persons instead of a whole tribal gathering:
4-5 qts (or more) drinking water
1-2 lbs bigger-than-bite-size chunks of stew beef or wild elk meat
4-5 summer squash of whatever you grow (e.g.medium to large zucchini or 8-10 paddie-pan)
8-10 whole corn-on-the-cob (de-husked, broken in half)
1-3 cups prepared bread dough, pinched into ribbons and torn into 2″ pieces
1/2-1cup ground Emory oak acorn flour
Over an open fire in a big pot, boil beef until tender, making a rich stock. Add chunked/diced summer squash. Keep simmering. Add torn pieces of bread dough and let puff up. Add whole corn cobs cut in half. When everything is well-simmered and tastes great, and still on the fire, gradually stir in the acorn flour. Serve outside with a sample of each ingredient in each bowl.
This hearty stew has elements of Mexican cocido, but in taste it is all its own. Enjoy the timeless flavors!
An interesting note: It was the Spanish who brought the name “bellota”–their name for Old World cork oak–to apply to our New World Emory oak, as the two oaks are so similar in their animate, tortuous yet graceful shape. Andalusians must have felt quite at home when they first encountered our Emory oak in what is now southern Arizona. To gather bellotas for yourself, head to the grasslands in July or early August to groves of the beautiful Emory oak, shake a branch and let the bellotas fall onto a blanket, and enjoy these precious acorns as Nature’s manna.
[For another traditional acorn stew recipe check out SavorSister and gourmet cook Carolyn Niethammer’s American Indian Cooking, Univ.of Nebraska Press. You can find other great acorn recipes and instructions in DesertHarvesters‘ book Eat Mesquite and More. Southwest Foraging by wild-crafter and herbalist John Slattery also gives good instructions how to remove tannins from acorns. Grow your own heirloom squash and corn, and white Sonora wheat for dough, as ingredients for this stew with saved seed from NativeSeedsSEARCH !]