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Sunday, November 03, 2002

Comparable to peanut butter


Jasper Mountain has been on view a lot this fall; we had week after week of warm, sunny weather, so that I had tomatoes still ripening on the first of November. This was one of our most neglected gardens ever, and the number and variety of weeds that sprang up were astonishing and overwhelming.

To look for beans or cucumbers was an adventure akin to exploring an equatorial rain forest. And yet the veggies were there, in profusion, holding their own. I brought out the juicer my oldest son had sent me last Christmas, and ran it for two or three hours every Saturday, putting fruit juices and soup stocks into the freezer in every available container of whatever variety. Outside, the sunsets on the mountain became redder and darker each week; I turned on the kitchen light and juiced into the evenings.

The soup stocks I use in several ways.

Once thawed, they can be poured into a crock pot, and diced vegetables and grain thickeners can be added to taste to create soups with those overnight flavor blends.

Or, they can be directly served hot or chilled as a vegetable drink.

Or, they can be used in bread. If I were doing pot roasts, which I’m not lately, the soup stock would be just the thing to add to the pan and used in basting.

When we get tired of the soups, we can whiz them in the blender and use the resulting paste in bread as well.

The bread lately has been of two sorts: round loaves raised and baked in stoneware plates, or rolls cut from the dough, rolled (of course) into a ball and plopped onto an oiled baking tin nested in other baking tin (to protect from scorching bottoms). Choice of white or whole wheat or combo, honey, molasses, sorghum or sugar, and throw in anything that takes your fancy: oats or miso, for example.

My last two batches included a paste made from pie pumpkins.

The pumpkins were volunteers and roamed about the garden at will, investigating the tomato vines and trying to smother the lettuce. I gathered about fifteen (they’re quite small, under three pounds each) and hoarded them away from the carving sort until safely after October 31, then scattered them round the house under the guise of setting the tone for Thanksgiving.

Each week I take one, halve it, scoop out the seed pulp into a colander, and simmer the halves until they’ve softened but not fallen apart. I drain the simmer water and let it cool to water plants or farm animals. The halves peel easily. They’re now ready to smash up and use either in bread, as a winter squash dish, or, if you insist, pie (or all three).

I run tap water (we have a well and we like the water) through the seed pulp and rummage all the seeds out into a bowl, salt them lightly, and zap them for a couple of minutes in the microwave.

I’ve also, in cooler weather, simply left the bowl (a stout one) on the top of the wood stove. Either way, the seeds are habit -orming and, to my mind, better than popcorn. The seed pulp goes into bread, where no one objects to it.

Everyone here professes to hate pumpkin so I simply serve the mashings with cinnamon and nutmeg as winter squash, under which name it is quite popular.

As the weather cools, I’ve taken to gathering acorns. There are massive English oaks in front of my place of work, and these usually produce bushels of long, dark, mahogany-toned nuts which are very popular with the local squirrels. I understand from the literature that these are inedible for humans due to the high level of tannins in them, and that one wants to shell them, grind them, leach the flour by running water through it for hours, then bake with it.

Being an impatient sort, I’ve tried them raw, keeping company with the squirrels, and aside from a puckery aftertaste found them palatable. The two basic varieties of oak in our urban area have either toothed or rounded leaves. Supposedly the toothed kind is more acid than the rounded kind and is to be avoided.

The English oaks are decidedly superior, but we have some large, handsome black oaks here (from the Eastern U.S., I think) which produce another large and handsome acorn that seems almost as good. They have sharply toothed leaves. Our native oaks, which produced the acorn meal famous as the staple diet of the peace-loving California Indians, have round-lobed leaves.

I have tried roasting these and also the English ones and I think they all roast well. The flavor changes to something between a parched peanut and a black olive. I haven’t noticed any adverse effects at all, except to my waistline, as I understand these things pack a calorie count comparable to peanut butter.

Why anyone with two legs and a pair of good hands would starve in a country of oaks, I don’t know.

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