Nuts in the kitchen: Acornucopia Project envisions an edible future for WNC

GOING NATIVE: The Acornucopia Project's Bill Whipple, far left, recently convened a group of local chefs, bakers and food artisans to get creative with ingredients produced from wild, native nuts such as acorns, black walnuts and hickory nuts. Among the team members were, pictured with Whipple from left, Cathy Cleary, Maia Surdam, Barbara Swell, Susannah Gebhart and Mark Rosenstein. Photo courtesy of the Acornucopia Project

A recent wintry woods walk brought me to a grove of oak and walnut trees. Marble-sized acorns and duck egg-sized black walnuts littered the ground, and a cartoon-like episode unfolded as my hiking companions and I slipped and slid on the nuts as if ball bearings had been thrown underfoot. We laughed and joked about the prolific offspring of the trees as we tried to hike through them.

Most of us don’t think of these ankle-turners as food, but the Acornucopia Project seeks to shift that paradigm. An outgrowth of the Nutty Buddy Collective, the project is a group of local horticultural activists and nut foragers who recognize the value of these native tree nuts as a free, renewable, nutritious food source — and an incredibly delicious one at that.

Recently completing its first season of production at the Nuttery at Smith Mill Works in West Asheville, Acornucopia spent the latter part of 2017 processing thousands of pounds of native black walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts and acorns into flour, oil, nut milk and nut meats. The project relies on community members throughout the region to collect fresh nuts and deliver them to the Nuttery in trade for money or processed nuts.

So far, the Nuttery has the capacity to crack black walnuts and press oil, and the group hopes to acquire a dehuller, crusher, winnower and other sorting equipment in order to operate the facility more efficiently next season. These hardworking entrepreneurs, who all have day jobs, process nuts on weekends and evenings and are as passionate about creating sustainable food systems as they are about crafting delicious products.

Soup to nuts

Locally produced nut-based staples are hard to find, even in our localcentric food scene. I first tasted acorn oil at a recent informal gathering organized by Bill Whipple of the Acornucopia Project to educate a few chefs and bakers on the finer points of the products coming out of the Nuttery. We talked and tasted as he explained the properties of different nut varietals.

Acorns themselves are highly tannic and taste bitter if eaten straight out of the shell. However, those tannins are water-soluble, and can be leached from the nuts by soaking and rinsing, repeating the process several times. But when nuts are pressed into oil, no leaching is needed because there are no tannins in the oil itself. The result is an amber-colored, brown butter-flavored elixir, evoking visions of buttery caramel corn. This forest-floor resource has obviously been underappreciated and underutilized in recent history.

Similarly, the hickory nut milk, which is made by boiling cracked nuts, surprised and delighted the group with a mellow flavor reminiscent of a rich, creamy broth meant to cure the winter blues. After seeing and tasting the concoctions being produced by the Acornucopia Project, the assembled chefs and bakers agreed to form a research and development network for exchanging ideas and innovation. Each nutty product is extremely versatile but could be intimidating for a less experienced cook.

Maia Surdam, co-owner of OWL Bakery in West Asheville and one of the bakers in the network, added finely ground acorn flour to her croissant dough and, once baked, topped the treats with a pastry cream made from hickory nut milk. “The final product was much nuttier and darker in color than what we were used to,” she says. “The acorn flour wasn’t pungent or bitter at all, just pleasantly nutty and warm.” She reports that OWL customers were excited to learn about the Acornucopia Project’s mission and eager to try acorn flour in a pastry — the small batch of croissants sold out quickly.

Experimenting with acorns is a focus for Blacksburg, Va., chef Aaron Grigsby. At his wood-fired farm eatery, Tabula Rasa, Grigsby employs the ancient technique of nixtamalization. Traditionally used to treat corn to make masa and hominy, this process uses a highly alkaline solution of wood ash or calcium hydroxide, which softens the grain and makes it more digestible.

Grigsby implements this same process with acorns and has had great results. “In addition to tenderizing the nuts so that they can then be ground or eaten whole, slaking them in wood ash seems to have the added bonus of effectively leaching or neutralizing their natural tannin, which usually takes hours to days of continuous or intermittent rinsing to make them edible,” he explains.

Another member of the research and development team, pioneering Asheville chef Mark Rosenstein, has long used black walnuts as an element of his cooking. “Black walnuts offer the creative chef an opportunity to balance four basic tastes — sweet, sour, salty, bitter — using the black walnuts as the bitter element,” says Rosenstein. “Bitter is not used sufficiently or frequently. Black walnuts are a wonderful place to experiment.”

Rosenstein has played with using these native walnuts in everything from pesto to braised pork belly to granola. He especially likes combining these nuts with orange and hopes to experiment with creating black walnut-infused spirits.

Milk and miso

Other local food artisans have been working with the Acornucopia Project to incorporate wild nuts into their products. Jessie Dean, owner of Asheville Tea Co., uses Acornucopia hickory nuts to make hickory milk chai and golden hickory milk. After first boiling and steeping the cracked nuts in water to make the milk, Dean likes to experiment with ingredients and brewing techniques.

COMMUNITY HARVEST: Donna Kelly, left, drops off a load of black walnuts with Acornucopia Project volunteer Greg Mosser at the organization’s facility in West Asheville. Community members can bring wild, edible nuts they harvest from their property to the Nuttery to be processed  into oil, flour and other products. Photo by Justin Holt
COMMUNITY HARVEST: Donna Kelly, left, drops off a load of black walnuts with Acornucopia Project volunteer Greg Mosser at the organization’s facility in West Asheville. Community members can bring wild, edible nuts they harvest from their property to the Nuttery to be processed into oil, flour and other products. Photo by Justin Holt

“The most flavorful result is a nod toward a traditional method of preparing chai by heating milk on the stovetop, adding spices and then steeping the tea in the warmed, spiced milk,” she says, noting that this works well with freshly made hickory nut milk. “The resulting tea is sweet and smooth on its own — it doesn’t need sweetener or the addition of other types of milk.” The flavor, Dean says, is a bit lighter than that of a chai made with dairy milk, “hinted with maple, vanilla, fall forest and pecan flavors.”

Locally grown chestnuts from blight-resistant trees have been fodder for Liat Batshira’s recipe testing. Batshira, owner of the small Asheville-based Micro Miso company, used chestnuts to make a special batch of miso, a fermented paste traditionally made in Japan with fermented soybeans.

After deciding that her first batch of chestnut miso tasted a bit odd, she opted to give it a little extra time to age to see what would happen. “I was surprised and amazed that a year after I’d made it, the flavor profile had transformed into a sweet maple syrup flavor,” she says. “The last batch of chestnut miso I made, I used very different ratios of ingredients and time, and while I think it tastes good, the chestnut flavor is subtle.”

This type of experimentation with native plants and new flavor profiles really excites most folks in the culinary world. The added bonus of recovering an otherwise wasted food source, and working with a highly nutritious, low carbon footprint product, makes the Acornucopia Project even more appealing — so appealing, in fact, that the processed nuts flew off the shelves at tailgate market stands this past fall.

Justin Holt, who works with Acornucopia, suggests the best way to ensure we have plenty of acorn flour and hickory nut milk for locally produced beverages and baked goods is to start collecting nuts. “It’s time-consuming, and the more folks get involved the more we can ensure our flours and oils will be available in future years,” he says.

This fall, the project will accept wild native nuts for cash and trade. So instead of twisting ankles as you hike, pick up those black walnuts, acorns, hickory nuts and chestnuts and take them to the Nuttery.  Find out how to be involved at Acornucopiaproject.com and by following the Nutty Buddy Collective on Facebook.

Cathy Cleary is the former co-owner of West End Bakery and Café, a cookbook author and co-founder of FEAST, a nonprofit dedicated to cooking and gardening education. She was among a group of Asheville chefs and food artisans invited this winter by the Acornucopia Project to experiment with culinary applications for the organization’s nut oil, flour and other products.

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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