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!

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