The American menu today is crowded with many cuisines: Italian, Chinese, French, Japanese, German, Ethiopian, Irish, Vietnamese.
With so many kinds of cooking, it can be easy to forget what is the most important cuisine of them all, that of American Indians. These foods from throughout the Americas are the foundation of what we eat today.
“American cuisine is a combination of immigrant cuisines in conjunction with Native American cooking,” said Lois Ellen Frank, a chef, author, teacher, food historian, culinary anthropologist and photographer working to keep the foodways of American Indians alive and thriving.
Frank, based in Santa Fe, N.M., has a valid point. Just think what our kitchens would be like without tomatoes, beans, squash, chocolate, vanilla, pineapples and, most of all, corn.
These foods of the New World rapidly circled the globe after 1492, in what’s called “The Columbian Exchange.”
Frank believes eating indigenous foods is not only good for you but good for the planet because many of these foods can be locally grown or sourced, often by American Indians.
To that end, she seeks to encourage the incorporation of traditional Indian foods into modern life via her books – including the James Beard Award-winning “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations” – articles, classes and a catering company.
Her thrust was clear during a talk in the fall at the Association of Food Journalists conference in Santa Fe. The title: “Seeds of Health: The Return to The Ancestral Diet.”
While touting the benefits of indigenous food, Frank doesn’t snub foods introduced into the Americas. One of her fall cooking classes also made use of lamb, goat cheese and wheat flour.
An Indian medicine wheel serves as a symbol to her of the intermingling of people, cultures and foods.
“One-quarter of the wheel is yellow, white, black and red,” she said. “Mix the colors together and it becomes speckled corn. Most of us are speckled corn.”
Frank personifies the analogy. She is half American Indian. Her mother is from the Kiowa nation, which was relocated to a reservation in what is now the state of Oklahoma in the mid-19th century. Her father is a Sephardic Jew, whose mother came from Europe as a small child.
Frank, born in New York City, grew up on Long Island.
Today, indigenous foods are a part of all Americans, no matter where their ancestors came from. For Frank, what’s important now is to make sure the foods, and the recipes, are accessible to all and enjoyed.
“Recipes only remain alive if people cook from them,” she said.
Lamb-Stuffed Chilies with Tomato Puree
12 firm green mild chilies, New Mexican or Anaheim
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3/4 pound ground lamb
1 large ripe tomato, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon each: dried thyme, pepper
Tomato sauce and topping:
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/4 pounds tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Sour cream, optional
Roast the chilies, turning often, on a stove-top grill until charred on all sides, about 15 minutes; peel. Cut off stem; slice chilies lengthwise to open like a book. Remove seeds.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook onions, stirring, until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the ground lamb; cook, stirring, until browned, about 15 minutes. Drain off the excess fat. Add tomatoes, garlic, bay leaf, bread crumbs, tarragon, salt, thyme and pepper. Reduce heat to simmer; simmer 15 minutes. Cool.
Meanwhile, for the tomato sauce, heat oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook garlic, stirring, 1 minute. Add the tomatoes; cook, stirring often, until the liquid evaporates and the sauce is reduced, 15 minutes. Pour sauce through fine sieve. Keep warm.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread chilies open on a work surface. Top each with lamb mixture. Close chilies around lamb. Place the stuffed chilies open-side down on an oiled baking pan. Bake until hot, about 10 minutes. Serve with the tomato puree. Garnish with sour cream.
Yield: 6 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 249 calories, 13 grams fat (4 grams saturated, 46 percent fat calories), 14 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrate, 38 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams dietary fiber, 303 milligrams sodium.
Fry Bread with Seasonal Berries and Prickly Pear Syrup
Lois Ellen Frank makes her own prickly pear syrup, but you can buy it online.
4 cups flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups warm water
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup prickly pear or other fruit syrup or honey
Seasonal berries, confectioners’ sugar
Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Gradually stir in water until dough becomes soft and pliable without sticking to the bowl. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface, folding outer edges of the dough toward the center, about 5 minutes. Return the dough to the bowl; cover with a clean towel. Let rest at least 30 minutes.
Shape the dough into egg-size balls. Roll each out to a square with a thickness of 1/4 inch on a lightly floured board. Cut each dough piece into four small triangles.
Heat about 1 1/2 inches of oil in a skillet over medium heat until the oil is hot but not smoking, about 350 degrees. Carefully place a piece of the dough in the oil. Cook, turning once, until the dough turns golden brown on both sides and puffs, about 3 minutes. Remove; drain on paper towels. Repeat frying with each piece of dough. Keep warm between two clean kitchen towels in an oven set on low.
Drizzle some of the prickly pear syrup on each plate. Top with fry bread, scatter with berries. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar or drizzle with more sauce.
Yield: 8 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 391 calories, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated, 18 percent fat calories), 6 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 2 grams dietary fiber, 560 milligrams sodium.