Squirreling Away in an Acorn Economy

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By Heidi Lewis

Have you noticed how the mighty oaks rain down their crops of shiny acorns on us in fits of boom or bust? Some years they pelt us with their bounty, making it feel like we’re walking on marbles and that hard hats are a requirement—and other years, nothing.

The rhyme or reason to these patterns is one of nature’s mysteries. Weather lore may predict a hard winter during a “mast year” or bumper crop, but there is no proof of that. “Trees have no ability to predict the future. It’s not what’s going to happen, it’s what did happen,” said oak expert Bethallyn Black of University of California, Davis. It could be an early frost or dry spring the previous year that influences the oak’s acorn capacity.

A blanket of acorns on the forest floor is extremely important to its ecological balance; species such as mice and deer depend on them. Biologists call the oak’s mast years a "predator satiation” strategy: Bumper crops satisfy the nut eaters, so some acorns escape to sprout seedlings.

Squirrels are always bearish in an acorn economy, so watching them  frantically put away their earnings isn’t a good indicator of winter.  However, the appearance of the beautiful acorn squash is.  The iconic acorn shape gives it its name, but it is also known as Des Moines squash. Acorn squash are easy to prepare and are perfectly suited for stuffing. Classic and wholly satisfying with a pat of butter and sprinkle of brown sugar, baked acorn squash can also be a vessel for the “good stuff.” Why not break out those tucked away chanterelles, a drip of precious truffle oil, and the saffron, faro, or sun-dried tomatoes you’ve been stowing? As the oak tree says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Preparation: Cut acorn squash in half, along the equator. Trim stem and tip so squash sits flat. Scoop out seeds. Add butter and maple syrup or brown sugar to the cavity. Bake 400 °F for about 1 hour or until fork-tender.

Storage: Store in a cool, dry place for up to 2 months.


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