I seem to have developed a pattern for the foraging off-season. Each winter, partly out of a deep love of cooking, and partly to satisfy the urge to interact with wild foods even when few are growing, there is a theme ingredient that I experiment with over and again. Two years ago, without a doubt, my winter cooking experiments consisted of all things porcini. Last year, I got good mileage from prickly pears. This year has been crowned the year of the acorn.
I've always known that acorns have great potential in recipes, but I've faced two problems. The first problem is in finding enough raw materials with which to work, as oaks are mostly an ornamental tree in the immediate area. The second problem, of course, is finding enough time to come up with recipes. The long days of winter offer the luxury of extra time to test new ideas in the kitchen.
When I first started working with acorns years ago, I saw ground acorn meal as a rather neutral starchy thing to be used mostly like a flour in things like breads and pasta. I also made a lot of acorn sweets, everything from cakes to cookies to acorn-infused buttercream frosting. This winter, my mind has been seeing acorn in a new light, seeing it for the sophisticated ingredient that it is, and I've been trying to both bring out its nearly chocolaty sweet flavor, as well as push it further into the direction of savory recipes, like acorn falafel, which I still consider to be my favorite.
The interesting thing is that I'm beginning to see that acorn can fit into some nifty corners that I'd never before imagined. Sometimes it can behave like corn masa, sometimes it can stand in for beans, and it also works in a lot of recipes where nuts are traditionally used (that one should have been a no-brainer, but it took a while to occur to me). This is how I arrived at the idea for a mole sauce thickened and flavored with acorn meal.
This following recipe is based very loosely upon mole rojo, though it abides no authentic recipe and looks a lot more like the red chile sauce I make in my kitchen at least once a month. The acorns make this sauce dark and add hints of chocolate that most associate with mole negro. Acorns also lend a mild sweetness to the mole which balances beautifully with the slight bitterness of the chiles. Acorn mole is a really interesting sauce. It pairs incredibly well with pork, chicken, and game birds. But I've also enjoyed eating it with roast vegetables, particularly roasted potatoes. I've also used it as a spread on a sandwich.
When selecting dried chiles, try to find ones that are pliable and fragrant.
10-12 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
10-12 pasilla chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 medium white onion, cut into quarters
3 "heads" of Allium bulbils (substitute 6 cloves of garlic)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
12 leaves Monarda fistulosa (substitute 1/4 tsp. dried oregano)
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2 c. acorn flour
4 Tbsp. lard
3-4(+) c. water
1. On two sheet pans (or in two batches), lay the chiles as flat as possible, tearing them if necessary. Stick them under the broiler just until you can begin to smell them, then pull them out right away. It's incredibly easy to burn them, and that's undesirable. You're going more for a light toasting.
2. Place the toasted chiles into a large bowl and cover them with just-boiled water. Leave them to cool to room temperature.
3. Meanwhile, load the tomatoes, onion, and whole allium bulbil heads onto the same sheetpan, and put them under the broiler until they char. You may have to flip each individual ingredient, or pull them out of the oven at different times. In this case, you are looking for darker spots of brown.
4. Place the charred tomatoes, onion, and allium into the blender (remove any paper that will easily slide off the allium, but don't fuss over it), along with the herbs, spices and salt. Puree the ingredient until they are smooth, add a splash of water if necessary to get them to blend. Pour into a bowl and set it aside, but don't worry about cleaning the blender jar.
5. Add the drained chiles to the blender, going in batches, and puree them as well. Again, you can use a little water to help the process along. You don't want to add too much water, though, as it will take time to reduce it down later when the sauce is cooking.
6. Pass both the tomato mixture and the pureed chiles through a sieve to get out any seeds and skin. I think this step is a total pain in the butt, but it's a necessary evil as the texture of the sauce won't be right without it. For now, keep the tomato mixture and the chiles separate.
7. I toast my acorns prior to leaching (my method is explained in great detail here). But if you've not toasted your acorns, do so now. You can spread the acorn flour onto a sheetpan, and pop it into the oven at 400˚ (F) for a few minutes, watching it like a hawk, and only letting it toast until it is fragrant and slightly browner.
8. Heat up the lard over medium in a large skillet. Add the tomato mixture and let it cook down for 5-10 minutes.
9. Stir in the chiles, and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
10. Whisk in the acorn meal and the 3-4 cups water, reduce the head to medium-low, and continue to cook the sauce for another 15-20 minutes, or until it has thickened considerably, to the consistency of a runny ketchup. Keep whisking it throughout this step, as it is more likely to stick and burn with the acorns in it. If your sauce seems to be getting too thick, you can add more water so that it can continue to cook for the full time.
11. Taste the sauce and adjust the salt to your liking. Acorn mole can be kept in the fridge for 3-4 days, but it doesn't freeze very well.