Before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans consumed foods that grew locally. They had accumulated knowledge of edible botanicals and their preparation, and most tribes lived on wild-harvested vegetables, berries, nuts and fungi, only occasionally adding small amounts of meat when it was available. Groups living in coastal areas or on the prairies added fish and game, but by and large vegetables were the mainstay of the Native American diet.
Native Americans understood the complex interrelationship between the earth, plant foods, and the climate, and their farming methods reflected this. For example, they planted and harvested three major vegetables, corn, squash and beans, also known as the “three sisters,” with an ecology of land and water in mind. Corn stalks supported the beans as they climbed, beans offered shade and gave nitrogen to the soil, and squash leaves inhibited weeds and kept the ground moist. This inter-growing technique is one of the finest gifts that Native Americans gave to the world.
It is ironic that Native American Indians have been associated with images of hunters and killers, when their diets were predominantly plant-based. In fact nearly half of all plants grown in the world today were first cultivated by Native Americans. Historic accounts show that Native Americans traditionally hunted only when necessary, and did not hunt to sell or trade until encouraged to so do by the incoming Europeans.
After the arrival of the Europeans, Native American life changed drastically, and many were forced to adopt new diets and foreign values. Over the years, these changes contributed to a severe deterioration of their health, with a high incidence of obesity and diabetes. Lately some health-advocates have urged a return to ancestral plant-based diet to combat these illnesses.
I have always liked the name of the entrée that I present below, “Three Sisters,” because in my family, we three girls were inseparable. We supported each other like the corn, beans and squash in Native American folktales. In addition to being grown interdependently, corn, beans and squash complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides complex carbohydrates, beans contribute high levels of complementary protein to the corn, and squash offers generous amounts of vitamin A and potassium.
Initially I was intimidated by the prospect of cooking winter squash as they are large and hard to cut open, but when I learned that it was easy to bake them, and that baking makes the squash taste sweet as the baking process releases the sugars, I began to experiment. Now I cook these beautiful autumn vegetables frequently.
Below are two recipes with a Native American theme that use local and seasonal ingredients, and a touch of spice. Happy Thanksgiving!! Happy Cooking!!
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is manager and co-owner of Other Avenues, a health-food store.
The “Three Sisters” Entrée
There are many ways to cook the “three sisters” together. Some possibilities are to puree the cooked squash with corn to make a creamy soup with dots of cooked beans; to layer cooked squash and beans, top them with corn polenta, and bake them together as a casserole; or to halve and stuff the squash and bake as described below.
1 each small butternut, kabocha and acorn squash (or any combination of 2-3 hard-shelled squashes)
3 tbsp olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
12 to 15 thin strips of red or green bell pepper
1½ cups frozen and thawed or freshly scraped corn kernels
1½ cups freshly cooked or canned kidney beans or pinto beans
1 tsp minced fresh oregano
1 tbsp chopped cilantro
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Optional: ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese or vegan option for topping
Using a sharp knife cut each squash in half lengthwise. Remove the fibers and seeds and rinse the squash. Arrange the squash halves in a vegetable steamer with the open sides down. If necessary, cook them in batches so as not to crowd them. Steam the squash for about 20 minutes or until most of the inner meat is cooked but the shells are still intact. Some squashes will take longer to cook than others, so check each of them often after the first 15 minutes so they are not overdone. Cool the cooked squash for ½ hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and sauté the onion for several minutes until limp. Add the pepper strips and stir fry for a few minutes more. Add the corn and beans, and stir fry for five minutes more. Transfer the cooked vegetables to a mixing bowl and set them aside.
Next, using a spoon and a paring knife, scoop the squash meat from the rind, being careful not to break the shells. Cut or mash the squash meat into small pieces and add it to the bowl of stir-fried vegetables. Add the oregano, cilantro, salt and pepper. Mix well.
Rub the remaining oil on the insides of the squash shells, and on the outer surfaces. Stuff the shells with the vegetable mixture and arrange the “bowls” in two shallow casseroles or on cookie sheets that are lined with a small amount of water.
Bake 30 minutes or longer, until the squash smells fragrant and turns golden brown on the edges. Top each with the optional cheese or vegan topping. Serve with your favorite hot sauce, or the mole sauce described below.
The word “mole” means “concoction” in the Aztec language, and reflects its origin with Native Meso-Americans, before it was popularized in Mexican cuisine. Most likely the original sauce was made with chilies alone and later was embellished with other ingredients. The dried chilies that give this mole its distinctive earthy flavor are known by various names in different locations. This can make it confusing to select chilies for mole, but you can safely use many types of dry chilies, as long as at least some of them are dark and thick such as Mulato, Ancho or Pasilla (also known as Negro) chilies.
3 to 4 dried Guajillo chiles
3 to 4 dried Mulato or Ancho chiles
3 tbsps olive oil
¼ cup each sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds (shelled and raw) and almonds (whole and raw)
1 medium onion, diced small
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh or canned tomatoes or tomato sauce
1 tortilla cut into small pieces
3 ounces (1 disc) Mexican chocolate (sold in Hispanic markets in rounds), cut into chunks 5 to 6 cups very hot water
Salt and pepper to taste
Wearing disposable gloves, break open each chili and remove the stem, ribs and seeds. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy skillet and pan-roast the chilies. Cook only a few chilies at a time, pressing them with a spatula and turning them with tongs to be sure they roast evenly. Do not burn them. The chilies are done when their skins start to blister. Place the roasted chilies in a bowl, add two cups of hot water, cover, and set aside.
Clean and dry the skillet before toasting the seeds and the nuts. Heat the skillet and toast the sesame seeds for only a few minutes. As soon as they start to turn color and smell fragrant, transfer to a platter. Next, toast the pumpkin seeds in the same hot skillet. They will swell and start popping in two minutes. Add them to the platter with the sesame seeds. Toast the almonds last. They will take a little longer, but as soon as dark spots begin to form, transfer them to the platter. Next, using an electric spice grinder, a clean coffee mill, or a blender, grind the seeds and nuts, in small batches to create a ground meal. Set aside.
Heat the rest of the oil in the skillet and cook the onions for a few minutes until translucent. Add the garlic and stir fry for a minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and stir fry for a few more minutes. Add the tortilla pieces, and cook the mixture for an additional two minutes. Then transfer the contents of the skillet to the jar of a blender. Add two cups of hot water and blend until smooth. Transfer this mixture into a saucepan and place over very low heat and cook uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, while working on the next step.
Place the soaked chilies and their water into the jar of the blender. Blend at a medium speed for 5 minutes. Add a cup of warm water and puree at high speed for 5 minutes. Turn off the blender but keep the lid on for 10 minutes to let the mixture settle. Next, put the chilies into a strainer with large holes. Press the chilies with the back of a spoon to dislodge any fibers and seeds. Add the resulting strained chili liquid to the mixture in the saucepan and discard what is left in the strainer.
Add the chocolate chunks to the hot mixture and stir until they melt and dissolve. Then, add the meal of nuts and seeds to the pot. Mix the mixture well so it’s evenly blended. Break up any lumps. Add a cup of water and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring frequently so the mixture doesn’t stick to the pot. Remove from heat, and allow the Mole to sit at room temperature for an hour.
Then, blend again at high speed for 5 minutes until the mixture is thoroughly smooth. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve the Mole with Three Sisters’ entrée above, or as a sauce for rice and beans or tamales. Leftover Mole can be refrigerated for a week, or transferred to small containers and frozen for a few months.