I’m not sure I’d want to attempt cooking without modern conveniences like a food processor and bottles of oil and jars of spices at hand, but it’s so interesting to learn about the techniques and ingredients used by Native Americans in the days before Columbus arrived. I received a review copy of Spirit of the Harvest, a James Beard and IACP award-winning book, and it describes the foods of Native American Indians from each part of what is now the US. The book is organized by region with recipes and information from the tribes that lived in each area. Traditional approaches to the dishes are explained, but the recipes themselves have been adapted to more contemporary practices. You won’t need to procure bear fat which was used for cooking some of these dishes in the traditional manner since these days vegetable oil, or if you prefer bacon fat, can be used instead. Primary ingredients are kept the same for the most part though. I didn’t realize Jerusalem artichokes are native to this land, and the Cherokee used them in various relishes, pickles, and preserves. There’s a recipe for spiced Jerusalem artichokes with cider vinegar, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and fresh dill. Jerusalem artichokes show up again in a dish from Plains tribes that’s adapted from a technique of burying tubers in hot coals to cook them. Here, broiling is suggested instead. From the Northeast, there’s a hearty fish soup with mushrooms and lima beans from the Iroquois and maple popcorn balls from the Algonquians, there are huckleberry and cranberry fritters from the Northwest, and from the Southeast, there’s a carrot bread made with cornmeal, honey, and dried blueberries. There are also recipes for game like roasted buffalo and buffalo jerky, stewed grouse, sugar pumpkin stuffed with venison, ducks stuffed with wild rice and mushrooms, and Pueblo rabbit.
It’s interesting to see the various types of breads including ones that are baked, others that are fried, and some that are grilled or cooked on a griddle. Cast-iron pans had been obtained by Native Americans through trade, and young women who attended non-native schools in the late nineteenth century learned about cooking with yeast and flour. Also, by that time, many Indian homes included wood-burning stoves and ovens. The first bread I wanted to try was Navajo fry bread. In the Southwest chapter, there’s a dish of prickly pear cactus and eggs which is to be served with tortillas or bread and a relish or salsa. I made a vegetarian version of it and served it on top of fry bread garnished with the Sacaton relish. The cactus and eggs element is essentially a hash. Rather than making it with bacon, I made a hash of potatoes and mushrooms and added the other ingredients from the recipe which included cooked, chopped prickly pear cactus pads, minced onion, and ground New Mexican red chile powder. The cactus pads, or nopales, are easy to find fresh here in Austin. I chopped them into strips, boiled and drained them, and then added them to the hash. If not available fresh, they are also sold already cooked in cans. If you've never tasted nopales, they taste like a very slightly tangy green bean. The Sacaton relish was a quickly-cooked salsa with mild green chiles, chopped jalapeno, minced onion, and diced fresh tomatoes. To make the fry bread, the dough was stirred together and left to rest for 30 minutes. Then, a small handful at a time was patted into a round about one-eighth of an inch thick and fried in vegetable oil. I spooned the hash on top of each piece of fry bread, topped that with a fried egg, and garnished with the tomato and chile relish.
I have to tell you that tasting this fry bread inspired one of those little dances I do around the kitchen when I get really excited about food. Puffy, crispy, chewy, and delicious is what it was. Be sure to let it cool a bit before attempting to taste it. Don’t ask why I suggest that. The hash with fried egg and relish was perfect on the fry bread, but of course you could go the route of Indian tacos and top the breads with your favorite taco fillings. Or, you might choose to make the breads into sweet treats with honey or powdered sugar. However you wish to serve them, they’re very worth trying.
Navajo Fry Bread
Re-printed with publisher’s permission, Stewart Tabori & Chang.
3 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder (increase to 3 teaspoons at high altitudes)
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups warm water or millk
1 tablespoon oil
Oil for deep frying
In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except oil and knead until smooth. Rub oil over dough. Cover and let sit for about 30 minutes. Either pat or roll out enough dough to fit in the palm of your hand in a circle about 1/8th inch thick, and deep-fry in hot oil. Usually Fry Bread is a little larger than the size of your hand. Makes 10 to 12 Fry Breads.
Note: I cut the recipe in half, and it worked very well. I also pan-fried, rather than deep-frying, the bread with hot oil in a saute pan for about two minutes per side.