FOODS OF THE SOUTHWEST INDIAN NATIONS
Ground beef can be added to Mesa Squash Fry with Sunflower Seeds, above, to turn it from a side dish into a main dish.
Native American traditions survive through centuries
To approach a native understanding of cooking, it helps to remember that American Indian tribes, regardless of terrain and climate, all developed societies sustained entirely by what the land provided. In the north, this meant long, icy winters when game was scarce and food plants nearly nonexistent. In the arid Southwest, it required growing crops in seasons almost without irrigation or rain.
Such hard-won techniques of finding food, and especially storing and preserving it, meant the difference between a tribe's survival and extinction. So food is the most sacred thing to Indians, said Marcellus Medina, of Zia pueblo in central New Mexico.
Plants are the essence of life, he said, so corn -- their staple food -- is revered as the Source. Narrating the origin story of the Three Sisters (the synergistic ancient crops corn, beans, squash) at an Albuquerque food festival recently, he put it simply: "From the flesh of these plants comes our flesh."
The first ingredient in native cuisine, then, is acknowledging our interdependence -- giving thanks and offering prayers every time you gather, prepare or consume food.
Today this idea takes the form of "sustainable" agriculture, giving or leaving something for the land to regenerate. In traditional communities, however, sustenance is understood directly and literally: No plant is taken without an offering or prayer, and the remainder is always returned to the soil or fire to acknowledge that any action affecting the land can affect the people and their well-being, said Walter Whitewater of the Navajo (Diné) nation in Pinyon, Ariz.
The Navajo sing to corn to make it grow, just as the Zia claim "magic" songs to make beans appear in hours. This kind of knowledge, which safeguards equilibrium between the natural and spirit worlds, Frank refers to as the "nontangible essence of food" -- a second principle of native cooking.
This essence, Frank says, involves everything that goes into the handling of food, by which people transmit and receive culture. She offers as an example "comfort foods," which awaken by mere recollection a sense of family, community, culture, caring -- the intangibles that nourish beyond ingredients and techniques.
Frank, who has both native and Jewish ancestry, researched indigenous foods of the Americas in the 1980s with Mark Miller, who went on to found Santa Fe's iconic Coyote Café. A food photographer by trade, she is writing a dissertation on native foods and runs her catering firm with Whitewater -- himself a rare combination of Navajo, man and chef.
The pair believe the time is right to reclaim native tradition in a contemporary culinary context -- an aim supported by their 2003 James Beard Foundation Book Award for the second edition of their cookbook "Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations" (Ten Speed Press, 2002).
With her catering staff and in her cooking classes, Frank applies the principle, "What you make contains your essence." If you are angry or upset, or cook animals that suffered horribly, or prepare food indifferently in a fast-food production line, "you are feeding people everything that goes into that experience," she said.
In the presentations that accompany their catered meals, Frank and Whitewater encourage people to use that power wisely, and pay attention to what goes into their cooking and the effect it has on others.
It is important also to return some of that essence to the source. "Enough is enough" is how Frank paraphrases the principle she learned from her cooking partner about overharvesting. "When you have what you need, leave the rest for other creatures and future generations."
Sharing is a way of completing the circle of replenishment that continues to provide for all, Medina said. Everything is supposed to be shared, he said, including modern knowledge and technology, and the failure to do so results in war and conflict.
Modern man is cut off from his source and thus becomes ill, said Medina, who embraces both native and Christian religions. Salvation lies in re-establishing our dependence on Earth, soil, water and spirit with every meal.
On their reservation north of Albuquerque, the Zia continue to hunt game -- mostly robin and rabbit, but also elk, deer, turkey, wild pig and prairie dog -- and to gather wild greens such as onion, garlic and spinach. They also order pizza and shop at the supermarket, says Medina's wife, Elizabeth, a well-known potter and pueblo chef. So their feast-day potlucks include not only the traditional red and green chili stews, posole (hominy stew) and oven bread, but also fried chicken, salad and prepared cakes.
As native culture has survived by adaptation and evolution, so native cooking has both received and offered myriad traditions. So while you might not easily find elk, pinyon nuts or even red chilies for the harvest table, you can pay respect to what is uniquely American in our food traditions this season by offering physical or symbolic tribute to the plants, animals and cultures that continue to make us what we are.
KEIKO OHNUMA / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Elizabeth Medina, left, dishes up beans cooked outdoors over a fire, and oven bread baked in an horno (outdoor earth oven) in the traditional pottery she makes at the Zia pueblo in San Ysidro, N.M.
Stew changes with the chili
There are as many variations as cooks for this traditional stew, which becomes Green Chile Stew when made with pork and roasted green New Mexico chilies -- both are staples at native feasts. Feel free to adapt the spiciness to your taste, or alter the proportion of meat, potatoes and garlic, but don't substitute ordinary chili powder, which contains other flavorings. New Mexico (also called Hatch) chili powder is widely available in supermarket racks among packaged Mexican spices. Add a drained can of diced tomatoes or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste for a richer red color.
Red Chile Stew
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1-1/2 pounds boneless beef roast, cubed
1 onion, diced
2 to 4 tablespoons New Mexico chili powder or 4 dried New Mexico chilies, roasted, seeded and ground with a little water
6 cups water (or part beef broth)
4 russet potatoes, pared and cubed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
In a skillet over medium-high heat, brown beef in oil 4 to 5 minutes. Lower heat and add onion and chili powder, stirring constantly. Cook until onion is translucent, about 3 minutes.
Transfer to a stew pot or crockpot, add 6 cups water or broth and half the potatoes, and simmer until meat is tender, 1-1/2 to 2 hours (5 to 6 hours in crockpot).
Mash the potatoes slightly with whisk to thicken stew, then add salt, oregano and remaining potatoes and simmer until they are soft.
Adjust seasonings and thickness by adding water or cooking partially uncovered. Serve hot with tortillas or bread. Serves 6.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 380 calories, 7 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 550 mg sodium, 49 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 30 g protein.
There are many variations on this dish, known in the Southwest as calabacitas -- a stir-fried side dish of squash and corn. Some cooks add ground beef and/or cheese and heat it in the oven to create a main dish casserole.
Mesa Squash Fry with Sunflower Seeds
"Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations," by Lois Ellen Frank (Ten Speed Press, 2002)
2 tablespoons cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green New Mexico or Anaheim chili, roasted, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped; or 1 4-ounce can diced green chilies
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Kernels from 8 ears sweet corn
4 small zucchini, in 2-inch strips
4 yellow squash, in 2-inch strips
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deveined and diced
1/4 cup shelled sunflower seeds
Heat oil in pan over medium-high heat; add garlic, chili, salt and pepper. Cook a minute or two, stirring, allowing flavors to blend.
Add vegetables, lower heat and simmer 10 minutes, until tender.
Add sunflower seeds and simmer 5 minutes. Serve hot.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 220 calories, 9 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 31 g carbohydrate, 7 g fiber, 9 g sugar, 8 g protein.
This slightly sweet, wholesome bread is served during pine nut-picking season in September. Families still camp for weeks in mountain slope areas of the Rio Grande Valley, where they have gathering rights. This bread goes with fall soups and stews, or toasted and buttered for breakfast, or served with applesauce, whipped cream or yogurt for dessert.
Pueblo Pumpkin/Squash Pine Nut Sweetbread
Adapted from "Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes," by E. Barrie Kavasch and Mary Teller (Minneapolis-St. Paul Co-op Consumer News, November-December 1995)
1-1/2 cups unbleached flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed, puréed or canned pumpkin or bright orange squash, like butternut
1/2 cup butter (1 stick), melted
2 eggs, beaten foamy
3/4 cup pine nuts or pumpkin seeds
Preheat oven to 350.
Combine dry ingredients in bowl. Stir in wet ingredients, then add nuts. Scrape into a greased 6-by-9-inch loaf pan and bake for 1 hour, or until knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Yields one loaf, serving 8.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 380 calories, 22 g total fat, 9 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 300 mg sodium, 43 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 22 g sugar, 6 g protein.