Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Rancho San Antonio County Park
Trip Date: November 14, 2009
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: November 20, 2009

Rancho San Antonio County Park-Looking so good you could almost eat it!

Seven persons braved the late-fall drizzle to come to Rancho San Antonio County Park on Saturday, November 14 for a little hiking and to make some images. Six of those seven were foodies who showed up early for a breakfast at the Country Gourmet in Sunnyvale. Our breakfast was pretty good, but couldn't touch a good Bite-O-Wyo spread!

Rancho San Antonio was shrouded in low clouds upon our arrival, but the overcast eventually broke up and at the end of the excursion we had the rest of a nice, crisp fall day to enjoy.

Rancho San Antonio is the most utilized county park among the 27 Santa Clara County parks. It is a favorite because of its location on the edge of the suburbs and its great natural beauty. It's a favorite haunt of joggers, cyclists, walkers and short-hikers. There are other facilities, too, including tennis courts, a model airplane flying area, horse facilities, large picnic facilities, many trails and a working farm exhibit called Deer Hollow Farm that is very popular with local families with children.

Rancho San Antonio has some unique features for every season-beautiful green views in the winter and spring, wildlife, and a seasonal show of the plant life. During our short hike to Deer Hollow Farm I was most struck by the abundance of wild food lying about the park. (I'm talking about the natural sources of foods that the local Native Americans relied upon.)

The big oaks had already shed their acorns, which, of course, were the staple for most California native populations.

Also in season were the bay berries from the numerous California Bay Laurel trees (Umbellularia californica). (Rancho San Antonio has the third largest Bay Laurel tree in the state. The tree is at least 200 years old and stands majestically next to the tennis courts. It has a trunk circumference of 360 inches, a height of 126 feet and a canopy spread of 118 feet.) These so-called nuts can be roasted and eaten like chestnuts or processed in other ways. We chewed on a few raw ones and found them to be too full of tannic acid to be enjoyable.

All along our brief hike I saw several potential sources of food. To follow are a few examples. (Of course there are many more plants that can be eaten that I haven't identified.)

Yes, yes! This is another one of those long, drawn-out field trip reports. If you're bored, then you better stop now. (Don't say I didn't warn you!)

How To Eat Your Way Through a County Park:

The Bay Laurel trees were laden with nuts at this time of year (they actually are more like a fruit-similar to avocados-having a large pit and covered with a fragrant layer of "fruit"). And the leaves themselves can be used (in small amounts) as a cooking spice.

Another common spice can be seen growing right next to some of the trails in the mixed oak forest and chaparral zones-sage. There are numerous types of sage growing in the western United States. A little bit of sage adds a lot of zip to the flavor of meat or other savory dishes.

In the darker forests-in the riparian zones-you can find the tender greens of miner's lettuce, which can be consumed as part of a salad or as a garnish. And down in the creek bed, in the pools of water, I saw a lot of watercress. Watercress is actually a European species that was introduced to this continent. This radish- flavored, tender green can be used as an ingredient in cooked dishes, in salads or as a garnish in sandwiches or other dishes.

If you are interested in the natural fare of California, please read further. I've gathered some information about some of these food and listed some ways to process them and included a few recipes where you can try these natural ingredients. There are numerous Native American cookbooks that make for interesting browsing. (Their style of cooking, perhaps, is a bit too bland for our palates, but it will give you an interesting insight into the culture of the former residents of the state.)


Virtually all of the acorns the native Californians used were bitter and needed to be leached with water to remove the bitterness. In ground form, acorn meal can be substituted for corn meal in most recipes. Acorns can also be used in place of chickpeas, nuts, peanuts, and olives in a variety of dishes. Acorn meal and acorn pieces are excellent in soups and stews. And acorns can also be treated with pickle brines or the lye treatment used for olives. They have even been used to make coffee-like drinks

Acorns were gathered in the fall after they ripened, When acorns are ripe, they fall from the tree, cap intact. (Early falling acorns usually have worms in them). If you see any holes in them, throw them away. Acorns can be stored first, dried out and then shelled. Or they can be shelled first, and then dried by placing them in a warm, dry place. For the ultimate in information on processing acorns, refer to a book about Yosemite's Julia Parker, written by Park Naturalist Bev Ortiz in the early 1990s.

Remove the dry acorns from their shells. Acorns are ground until the meal is so fine that "it will stick to the basket sifter" when it is turned upside down. When you have ground the acorns to the right consistency, you must then leach the meal. This was traditionally accomplished (before there was woven cloth to work with) by building a mound of fine sand, near a spring or a river, and then filling the center of the mound with the meal. Water was then poured through the acorn meal, which caused the tannin to leach out of the acorn meal. When tasting revealed that the tannin was gone, the meal was carefully removed from its sand "colander" and put into a cooking basket. Special cooking rocks were placed in the fire, and put in the cooking basket when they were hot. The meal and the hot rocks were stirred to cook the meal. As the rocks cooled, they were replaced by other hot rocks until the meal was done. The rocks caused the "acorn soup" to boil, and the stirring continued until the mush was the desired consistency-either thin enough to eat with a spoon, or thick enough to eat with the hands or a fork. Since you are not a native Californian you can add a little salt, and maybe some dried fruits-perhaps raisins. And even a little cinnamon. (We saw such a cooking demonstration at Mission Santa Cruz during a trip about a year ago.)


Acorn Stew
  • 1 lb stewing beef
  • 1/2 cup finely ground acorn meal (tannin removed)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Place beef in heavy pan and add water to cover. Cover with lid and simmer until very tender. Remove from liquid and cut meat into very fine pieces. Return meat to the liquid. Stir in the acorn meal. Add salt and pepper as desired. Heat until thickened and serve.


Ethnic food enthusiasts like to substitute acorn meal for corn meal when making muffins-usually using half corn meal and half acorn meal. Some have substituted half of the flour in a biscuit recipe with half acorn meal. Experiment carefully, remembering that you have to have enough flour to provide gluten to bind things together. Acorns have no gluten.

Here is a modern Acorn Bread recipe from the book "Cooking with Spirit, North American Indian Food and Fact", By Darcy Williamson and Lisa Railsback:

Acorn Bread:
  • 6 Tablespoon cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 cup mashed potatoes
  • 2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cup finely ground leached acorn meal
  • Mix cornmeal with cold water, add boiling water and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add salt and butter and cool to lukewarm. Soften yeast in lukewarm water. Add remaining ingredients to corn mixture, along with yeast. Knead to a stiff dough. Dough will be sticky. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk. Punch down, shape into two loaves, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. Bake at 375 degrees F for 45 minutes.
Acorn Griddle Cakes:
  • 2/3 cup finely ground leached acorn meal
  • 1/3 cup unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/3 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 Tablespoon melted butter
  • Combine dry ingredients. Mix together egg and milk, then beat into dry ingredients, forming a smooth batter. Add butter. Drop batter onto hot, greased griddle. Bake, turning each cake when it is browned on underside and puffed and slightly set on top. Makes 12 to 15 cakes.


California Bay Laurel leaves can be used as a seasoning spice in cooking much like the leaves of the European Bay (Laurus Nobilis). California bay, however, is much stronger! California bay may not deliver the best flavor for many traditional European recipes. If you want to try California Bay, you shouldn't use more than half of a mature leaf in any dish that needs to simmer for a long while. A quarter of a leaf will usually suffice. You can also use the very young leaves, which contain much less of the volatile aromatic oil. Pick them when they are still light green, smooth and shiny. They can be ground into a powder and saved. The leaves were also used to soothe headaches by making a compress for the forehead, used as tea to ease stomach discomfort and to scent the steam in sweat lodges for relief of rheumatism. The scent of bay leaves is also a natural insect repellent and used to line the inside of grain storage vessels to discourage insect intrusion.

The interpretative sign in the park had a recipe for bay-flavored baked potatoes

Roasted Potatoes with Olive Oil and Bay Leaves:
  • Slice open some potatoes and drizzle olive oil over them.
  • Sprinkle on your own mixture of herbs. (If you are at a loss, try salt, black pepper, thyme, basil, savory and fennel.
  • Lay a fresh bay leaf on each potato and close the potato with the bay leaf inside.
  • Bake at 350 degrees until tender?about an hour.
I've made a nice Ham and Navy Bean Soup using California Bay to give it some added flavor. Just look up a basic dry-bean soup recipe and put in some bay leaf to give it a little flavor boost.


The nuts are harvested in the fall when they drop from the trees of their own accord. Select nuts that have not been on the ground too long, judging by the condition of the fleshy outer husk. The thin layer of flesh can be edible when perfectly ripe, but soon becomes rotten and unfit to eat. The flesh also has a strong tannin and essential oil flavor. Some trees will produce a thicker and tastier flesh than others while some are downright inedible. Husk the nuts soon after harvesting, before the variously colored fleshy coatings begin to wither and rot. Dry the nuts in the sun or in any especially warm area with good air circulation.

Processing: The green nuts are inedible and must be roasted to cook off the volatile oil that they contain. Roast the nuts in the shell after they are completely dry. In the campfire, they are roasted in the the hot ashes at the edge of the fire. For oven roasting, cook in a preheated 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes, stirring every 2 to 3 minutes. They are well done when they become a light coffee brown. There is a fine line between just done and overdone and it takes very little time to go from just right to too far gone, so test them frequently and pull them out as soon as the average nut seems to be the right color.

The shelled nuts can be eaten just roasted as described. They are akin to coffee and bitter chocolate, and are an instant hit with some while being reviled by others. A kind of chocolate can also be made from them. The nuts contain 40-60% of a waxy fat which behaves very much like cocoa butter. If you grind the nuts in a grain mill or on a flat rock into a paste, the friction is sufficient to melt this oil. Adding a small amount of powdered sugar and forming into little balls or cakes makes a product remarkably similar to chocolate. It's not quite chocolate, but it is quite good and appeals to a wider audience than the plain roasted nuts. The traditional form of this cake (pol-cum hot-mil in Yuki) is made without the sugar.


California Sage, Great Basin sage or most of the other species can be used for a spice. (Some are too strong for cooking.)

Sage, the herb, has been used for cooking for a long time. It gives flavor to pork sausage, and other meats. The aroma and slight bitterness must be used precisely to give adequate taste. Correctly applied, it complements the flavor of chicken, rabbit and fish. It can also be added to turkey dressing spices to give your dressing a nice, spicy flavor.

To gather it, simply cut it, wash it and dry it. Store in a dry place, when needed you can simply take what you need and chop it to a fine powder.

There are several species of the sage herb, each with their own characteristics that make them suitable for various uses. The Artemisa variety is very bitter, and is great as a natural insect repellent-it can be sprayed with alcohol after the plant is boiled to release all it's juices. This variety is not intended for cooking. All varieties have some medicinal qualities as well, the sage herb can be used as an antiseptic and anti-fungal agent. Taken internally, it improves the digestion-the reason why it is sometimes used with heavy meals. It can also help control diarrhea.

Sage has a wonderful aroma, and the "fruit sage," "pineapple sage" and sage elegans, among others, give the most beautiful smell, and are sometimes used with sachets, to complement potpourri. It can also be used for tea, either combined with black tea or by itself. You can collect sage flowers for making tea.

As with all wild plants, make sure you know for sure what you are collecting. Some plants have highly poisonous cousins-take for example the parsley family. The cousin to garden parsley is Poison Hemlock (of which we saw plenty at Rancho San Antonio growing along the streams). Fortunately, Poison Hemlock may resemble parsley, but it is far too bitter to be accidentally ingested. Poison hemlock has purple spots on its stems.

Another thing to remember when gathering California wild plants is that poison oak is often a companion plant in the areas where these herbs, shrubs or trees are growing. You may not pick it, but if you rummage or walk through it during your plant search, you'll definitely regret it later!


Miners lettuce:

During the winter and early spring the sides of Bay Area trails are blanketed by patches of miners lettuce with its soft, round, green leaves.

The plant is also known as winter purslane, spring beauty or Indian lettuce but is most commonly called miner's lettuce after the California gold rush miners who ate it to prevent scurvy. It's native to the western mountain and coastal regions of North America but is most common in California in the Sacramento and northern San Joaquin valleys.

You can eat miner's lettuce raw in salads or cook it like spinach which it resembles a bit in taste and texture (though I think spinach has a stronger taste.) For salad combine the miner's lettuce with some arugula, grated carrot, goat cheese, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, and croutons, then covered it with a homemade balsamic vinegar dressing.


Watercress is a fast-growing, aquatic or semi-aquatic, perennial plant introduced from Europe and central Asia, and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by human beings. It is known for its peppery, tangy flavor; similar to the flavor of horse radish. Watercresses produce small white and green flowers in clusters.

Watercress contains significant amounts of iron, calcium and folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and C. It is attributed to having cancer-suppressing properties; and widely believed to help defend against lung cancer. Because of its high iodine content, watercress has a strengthening effect on the thyroid gland. It can, however, react with certain pharmaceutical drugs, so if you are heavily medicated, maybe eating watercress is not such a good idea.

Warning to gatherers: Watercress crops grown in the presence of animal waste can be a haven for parasites such as the liver fluke or other parasites or bacteria. Therefore, if you pick the watercress downstream from the Deer Hollow Farm-or any pasture or animal farm-you had better wash it thoroughly to eliminate any animal waste. (Better to just buy if from one of those fancy grocery stores!)

Avocado and Watercress salad:
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar (not seasoned)
  • 1 tablespoon grated sweet onion such as Vidalia or Walla Walla (use large holes of a box grater)
  • 1/4 cup finely grated peeled Gala apple (use small holes of box grater)
  • 4 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 6 cups watercress (thin stems and leaves only; from 1 large bunch)
  • 1 firm-ripe avocado
  • Stir together vinegar, onion, apple, soy sauce, and sugar until sugar has dissolved, then stir in oil. Just before serving, toss watercress with enough dressing to coat. Quarter, pit, and peel avocado, then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Gently toss with watercress. The watercress can be trimmed a day ahead and chilled in a sealed bag lined with damp paper towels.The dressing can be made two days ahead and chilled, covered. Stir or shake before using.
Wild Mushroom and Goat Cheese Omelets with Watercress:
  • 4 Tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Shitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thickly sliced
  • 2 medium shallots
  • 1 bunch of watercress trimmed with thick stems cut into three-inch pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 6 to 8 eggs
  • 4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
  • Preheat the oven to 225. In a large skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of the butter. Add the shitake and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 7 minutes. Add the shallots and wait about 3 minutes. Add the watercress, season with salt and pepper and cook just until wilted, about 1 minute. Keep warm.

    Crack 2 or 3 eggs into a medium bowl, season with salt and pepper, and beat with a whisk. In a 10 inch, nonstick skillet, melt 1 Tablespoon of the butter. Whisk the eggs again and add them to the skillet. Cook over moderately high heat, lifting the edges with a spatula to allow the bottom of the omelet is golden and the top is nearly set, about 4 minutes.

    Spoon one-third of the filling down the center of the omelet and sprinkle with one-third of the goat cheese. Using a rubber spatula, fold the sides over the filling to enclose it completely. Slide the omelet onto a large heatproof plate and cut it in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining butter, eggs and filling to make 2 more omelets. Serve at once. Recipe makes 3 omelets.

Although there are numerous edible mushrooms in the wild, I would never suggest that you collect wild mushrooms unless you know what you are doing, so get your mushrooms at the market. Even a small amount of poison mushrooms can be lethal and I remember a tragic story of a whole Laotian family who died because they simply picked a California species of nightshade that resembled an edible species in Laos. If you don't know the mushroom then leave it alone!

© 2009 S.R. Hinrichs