Monday, November 11, 2013

Three Sisters and a Bison (A Brief Exploration of Indigineous North American Food)

Hi there!

November is Native American Heritage Month in the U.S. and a friend of mine posted an item on her Facebook about the 3rd to the 9th being Indigenous Eating Week. This got me thinking about how little is generally known about the cuisine of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (aka North America). So far as I know, there's only ever been one restaurant in Ottawa that specialized in Aboriginal food and that was Sweetgrass, which closed down many moons ago (but they did serve some pretty amazing grub when they were around). It's not like there's a ton of Aboriginal cookbooks out there either. All in all, it's a cooking culture that doesn't get nearly enough airtime, which is too bad, because the staples of many traditional First Nations diets are pretty damned tasty and versatile. 

Also consider this: the spice in Mexican cuisine didn't come from Spain, maple syrup wasn't invented by Europeans and blueberry pie would be pretty boring if Indigenous peoples didn't first cultivate that tasty little fruit. These are only a few of the culinary contributions from North America's Natives that are mainstays in modern eating, and yet we only tend to know about bannock, jerky and smoked salmon.

One of the dietary and agricultural mainstays across the North American continent is/are the "Three Sisters", which are squash, corn and beans. These crops would be grown together in a kind of symbiosis (the beans climb on corn stalks, the squash grows on the ground to keep weeds from growing, etc.) and eaten together would provide a balanced diet. 

So, upon learning of the existence of Indigenous Eating Week, I figured I should try my hand at putting together something tasty based on the Three Sisters. Now, it's me and I rarely do vegetarian, so I needed something in the meat department that was distinctly Aboriginal. The answer was pretty clear: it doesn't get much more Aboriginal than bison and luckily my butcher carries it on a regular basis (it ain't cheap, though). It being November, the logical choice was to throw everything together into a stew. 

Now, squash, corn and beans are pretty easy to put together in a pot, but that wasn't enough to complete the stew; I'd also need tomato, garlic and onion to round out the flavours. I thought including tomato would have been "breaking the rules" but it turns out tomatoes originated in Mexico long before Europeans showed up. Onions and garlic, not so much, but they're pretty much a staple in everything I cook. Wild garlic (ramps) are native to North America so far as I can tell, but their season is Spring, so no luck there. I also needed something in which to sauté the onions and garlic and went with olive oil as I usually do. So, I did cheat just a little.

As I was building the recipe, I thought of other ingredients that originated in North America that would help build flavour. I came up with maple syrup and wild rice, as well as jalapeno peppers for a bit of extra zip and heat. I also went with assertive seasonings, just to make sure it was tasty!

Three Sisters and a Bison Stew

Serves 6-8


- 1 tbsp olive oil (or canola oil)
- 1-2 small onions, chopped
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 lb. bison meat cut into 1.5 cm/1/2 inch cubes (the package I bought said "stewing cubes" so I have no idea what cut it was from - maybe top round?)
- 1 tsp chili powder - 1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed (to prepare squash, cut in half, cut off tips, scoop out "guts", peel skin and cut into 3 cm/1-inch cubes) - 1 can corn (or slice kernels from 2-3 cobs of fresh corn)
- 1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed (you can use dried beans, but it takes way longer. For instructions on how to cook dried pinto beans, here's a random web site)
- 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed (or, y'know, see above)
- 2 jalapeno peppers, either fresh or canned (I used canned), seeded and chopped
- 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 1 cup vegetable or beef stock (more if needed)
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 cup wild rice
- 2 tbsp maple syrup

This had better work...


- In a large pot, heat oil on medium-high (6-7) and sauté onions and garlic for about 5 minutes.
- Add bison and chili powder and brown meat for another 5 minutes.
- Add squash, corn, beans, peppers, tomato and stock. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil.
- Stir in wild rice and seasonings. Reduce heat to low (2-3) and cover.
- Simmer for 50-60 minutes. Stir in maple syrup.
- Simmer for another 10 minutes and serve.

Mission accomplished!

I skipped serving with bread or other starch since there was more than enough density and richness to this dish all on its own, what with two kinds of beans and super-lean yet super-dense and flavourful bison all playing together. The squash thickened it nicely, so it was definitely the right consistency, neither soup nor paste.

The flavour profile was subtle but really nice. The flavours of the corn, bison and wild rice stood out the most, with just a bit of heat from the jalapenos. There were also some understated southwestern flavours coming from the chili powder and smoked paprika, while the nutmeg, maple and squash evoked the familiar autumnal pumpkin pie flavour profile. All in all, I think it did a good job of showing off ingredients and flavours from all across Turtle Island.

So, here's hoping that you take the time to explore some of the most overlooked (and tastiest) food on/from this continent. I doubt you'll regret it!

Cheers and Miigwech!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Food Trucks/Carts Are Here! pt. 2 - Urban Cowboy

As Ottawa's fledgling romance with food trucks and carts continues throughout 2013, I've had a chance to try a few more of them (although I end up back at Angry Dragonz a whole lot, it being 3 blocks from my house). One place that has stood out in my travels in food quality, and being a neat experience in general, was the Urban Cowboy "Texas Street Food" truck.

Urban Cowboy


Spiffy set o' wheels!

A long time ago, I worked at Big Daddy's Crab Shack and Oyster Bar, which was one of the first places to serve Cajun food in Canada. It was owned by former Ottawa Rough Rider (CFL football team) Val Belcher, who also started the Lone Star restaurant chain. Val unfortunately passed away in 2010, but his tradition of bringing the tastes of the South to Ottawa is being carried on by his son Layne and his business partner Matthew Hinds via the Urban Cowboy Food Truck. Located in Old Ottawa South at the corner of Bank St. and Glen Ave., they offer all kinds of tasty goodness like ribs, oyster po' boys, portabello sandwiches, sweet potato fries and more. But, having only had the chance to sample their wares once (so far), I had to go with the menu item dripping in tradition (and sauce): the Belcher Burger.

The Belcher Burger is about halfway in size between a slider and a full-on burger. At 6 bucks, it's an affordable and magnificent slice of Texas, comprised of a whack of saucy smoked beef brisket on a potato bun with a dill pickle spear on the side. It's simple, but sublime: the brisket is smokey and rich with just the right tangy counterbalance from the sauce and pickle, and is melt-in-your mouth tender (which is a feat to be proud of with brisket). The potato bun is a little more solid than your standard burger bun, which added a nice chewy quality to the bite. All in all, just freakin' awesome.

The Belcher Burger is just the beginning!
Also awesome was chatting Layne up to get the story behind the Belcher Burger: Back in the day when Val was a linebacker for the Riders in the late 70s/early 80s, he and his wife would whip up brisket burgers for the tailgate parties and later sell them at the games (apparently there was quite the demand, unsurprisingly). So, quite a fun little Ottawa tradition being kept alive at the Urban Cowboy truck. I can't wait til circumstances send me back their way!

A mittful o' delicious!

I'll be back soon with another truck or two!


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Saluting the Sausage - Part 1 - Andouille

Back again! FINALLY!

OK, it's no secret that I am a giant meat eater and eat probably way more than I should. There are a lot of brilliantly delicious ways to prepare all kinds of meats, but there's one that is universal, functional and almost always delicious and that's a friend the world round: the sausage.

What defines sausage? Well, according to Oxford, a sausage is: an item of food in the form of a cylindrical length of minced pork or other meat encased in a skin, typically sold raw to be grilled or fried before eating.

Simple enough, eh? And yet, there's pretty much no food item that has more varieties in all manners of cuisine than the sausage. I recently borrowed the following book from the library and it maps out the various types of sausage and regions where they can be found and it's pretty much everywhere worldwide except maybe Antartica and Nauru. Just take a look at what wikipedia has to say

Boasting a versatility like few other ingredients, sausage can be used in all manner of recipes and adds a whole lot of flavour with small amounts, which is good since there's probably no such thing as a "healthy" sausage. 

Lately I've been using all manner of sausage in different recipes and as a result, I have all kinds of posts in the offing revolving around tasty sausage-based creations.

In this first post, I'll be looking at the Andouille sausage. Andouille is originally a French creation, but has since come to prominence in Cajun cooking, where it features heavily in many dishes. Andouille is a smoked pork sausage seasoned with wine, garlic and spices (sage, thyme and cayenne usually feature prominently). You'll find Andouille in Gumbo, sausage gravy, pasta dishes and so on.

A tubular pillar of Cajun cooking

Perhaps the most famous dish that makes use of Andouille, other than Gumbo, is Jambalaya. Jambalaya is a rice dish laden with Andouille, chicken and shrimp, as well as a whack of veggies and seasoning. As you may already know, Cajuns don't skimp on flavour when they cook and that is certainly evident in a heaping bowl of Jambalaya.  

The thing is about Jambalaya is that it's one of those somewhat labour-intensive and time-consuming dishes that tends to intimidate the average cook, but if you follow the instructions fairly accurately, it isn't all that difficult to get right the first and every time. And even then, it's kind of remarkable how many different ways of making it I've found out there and they probably all work. So, here's my version, mainly adapted from a recipe I found on the 'Net many years ago:


Serves 6-8


- 400-450 g/1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced
- 400-450 g/1 pound boneless chicken meat, cubed
- 200-225 g shrimp, peeled
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 large red pepper, diced
- 4-5 celery ribs, sliced about 1/2 inch thick
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cans tomato paste
- 2 large tomatoes, diced
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp black pepper
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- salt to taste (might not be necessary depending on how salty the stock is)
- 2 cups rice, uncooked
- hot sauce to taste


- In a pot, heat oil to medium-high. Cook chicken pieces and sausage for about 5 minutes, then add onions, peppers, celery, garlic and tomato paste.
- Cook veggies and tomato paste for about 5-6 minutes, allowing the paste to darken, but not burn.
- Stir in tomatoes and sauté for 2 minutes.
- Stir in chicken stock, seasonings and rice. Reduce heat to medium-low (3 or 4).

Sauce and rice cooking together...

- Cover pot and cook for 25-30 minutes, allowing rice to absorb liquid.
- Stir in shrimp and cook uncovered for another 10 minutes on medium-low until shrimp is fully cooked through, but not tough. Keep stirring to prevent rice from sticking to bottom of pot. NOTE: you can simply pan fry the shrimp in a little bit of olive oil and stir in to the cooked jambalaya as well.
- Discard bay leaves and serve, keeping a bottle of your favourite hot sauce on the side, just in case you want that extra kick.
... to make this!

You can serve the Jambalaya with whatever you want (salad, bread, etc.), but I find just a good sized bowl is more than enough of a meal on its own.

One of the best rice dishes in the world

The verdict is very simple: This is one of the only rice dishes I truly enjoy making. It's simple, hard to screw up and just exploding with rich, deep flavour, especially from the Andouille. I'd made it previously with Italian sausage and it just wasn't the same. I recommend trying this recipe at the first chance you get, you won't regret it.

So, that's the first look into the wide world of sausage. From the kitchens of New Orleans, we'll next be travelling across the Atlantic. But where to? Well, stay tuned to find out!