Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cactus and Eggs with Sacaton Relish on Navajo Fry Bread

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.


  1. That looks to die for! I've never had Navajo fried bread, but I will remedy to that situation soon... I would love to taste cactus. That is such an intriguing ingredient.



  2. Hy Lisa,
    first time your space..
    awesome posts with great cliks..
    excellent presentation..
    Navajo fried bread sounds scrumptiously tasty..
    Am your happy follower now..;)
    do stop by mine sometime..
    Tasty Appetite

  3. I've never heard of that cookbook or seen any Navajo Fry Bread but that surely looks like a meal I would enjoy.

  4. Spirit of the Harvest sounds like a great cookbook. It is so interesting to me that much of the food we eat now is really not all that different from what Native Americans were eating all those years ago.

    One of my favourite restaurants here in Vancouver, Bin 941, serves Navajo fry bread. I've never stepped foot in that restaurant and not ordered it, love it. Can't wait to try making it at home :)

  5. What a great looking dish. Never heard of that book either but it sounds wonderful!

  6. My husband is Navajo, and many of his family still live on the reservation. I love fry bread, and it's great in so many ways! My husband loves it with peanut butter or with some mutton and green chilies if we're visiting home. However, I would like to point out that this recipe is hardly a traditional, ancestral food. It's actually got a pretty depressing history. As Indigenous Native American tribal groups were pushed off their land and into reservations by the European Americans, they were frequently unable to farm/hunt, etc as they'd done in the past and were given supplementary foods from the American government that had never been a part of their diet and were typically of the poorest quality. So when you're stuck trying to feed yourself and your family but can't hunt or farm, what do you do? Use the processed flour and grease the government gave you and make fry bread! There have been a lot of studies showing that this has been a major factor in the current health issues Native Americans suffer from. It's disappointing that they would've included a recipe with such a background in a book that sounds like it has a lot to offer!

    And I will say that knowing the history never stops me from eating too much of it any time I get the chance- it is delicious, and I'm glad you posted the recipe!

  7. This bread looks so colourful and full of flavours. I love deep-fried bread, love the toppings you used.

  8. Amy: Thank you so much for the background information. I was aware that some of the dishes in the book, like fry bread, were not traditional or ancestral but only common after reservation life began. I think it is educational, though, that the book includes examples of foods from different points in history. Although, it would have been more enlightening if specific information had been included about dietary changes and the loss of access to traditional ingredients and inability to farm/hunt after living on reservations began.

    I agree that fry bread is delicious despite its history!

  9. I had no idea cactus can be eaten. How ignorant of me! Now I am curious to try it :)

  10. Thank God, we dont have to procure bear fat or any fat ourselves and there are some things that make cooking easier :)

    I would like to try cactus, though I guess the ones we have at home better not to use :D

  11. That cookbook sounds interesting, Lisa! Amy's comment notwithstanding. I imagine if we looked more deeply into a lot of historic recipes we'd be surprised at their true beginnings. I'd love to try the fry bread and I've never tasted cactus. Interesting they taste like green beans....

  12. I first enjoyed fry bread while traveling in the south west and can attest that it is both satisfying and delicious. For a healthier fry bread, I have reduced the AP flour by half, replacing it with whole wheat flour and had successful results. Recipes, even ones from our own families, may be tangled in a historical past that evokes a time of suffering and pain as well as joy. Food can most definitely be a window into history.

  13. This fry bread looks terrific- love the addition of egg to make it a meal. I'd never ask but I can only assume you offer that bit of wisdom on letting the bread cool before trying it due to a scalded tongue. Whenever I get excited about something, I'm too impatient to wait to taste it too, so I know all about scalded tongues :-) Were there any recipes from the Creek tribe? My father's family lineage includes Creek ancestry so if my peeps have any good recipes, I'd love to try them. Let me know if I should pick up the book!

  14. That book sounds amazing, Lisa! Thank you for bringing light to it and sharing this wonderful recipe. It's always humbling and inspiring to learn how beautiful, delicious food was made long before the modern conveniences of appliances, electricity, and grocery stores.

  15. Shelley: Regarding the Creek, there's info about the "Five Civilized Tribes" to which they belonged and the Green Corn Ceremony, or boskita, in the Southeast chapter. There are recipes for a fresh corn pudding, corn pones, a Creek blackberry cobbler, and grape dumplings (made with wild opossum grapes or black grapes).

  16. Great post! I'm going to check out "Spirit of the Harvest", thanks for recommending it! In 2001 we took a long road trip through the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe and Taos which really sparked my interest in Native American foods. We had Navajo Tacos (braised buffalo on fry bread) at the Grand Canyon Lodge, and ate at a restaurant in Santa Fe (can't remember the name) that was supposedly owned and run by a Native American chef and featured a lot of wild game. On a recent trip to Jackson Hole & Yellowstone we looked for a similar experience but were disappointed that it didn't seem to exist.

    When the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian opened I ate at their restaurant (organized like a food court with each station's menu based on the foods eaten by Native Americans in a specific region) and subsequently purchased the cookbook, "Foods of the Americas; Native Recipes and Traditions." Unfortunately its a bit heavy on Central and South American foods, but still has some very nice recipes, like Corn & Wild Rice Fritters and Guatemalan Potato & Green Bean Salad (actually a vegan recipe as the dressing is made from pumpkin seed, tomatillos and garlic). Another good cook book is "Kokopelli's Cook Book" which is small and simple but has my "go-to" recipe for Pork Posole.

    Thanks again for posting this! Its makin' me hungry!

  17. Goodness I have to try me some fry bread! Looks amazing. Tonight I'm going to make beer bread to go with some Shiner Bock Cheddar soup. Fry bread is next on the list though. Happy Halloween Lisa!

  18. I want to taste the cactus!! A great stir-fry to serve with fried bread.

  19. Never tried cactus before. I wonder how it taste like.

  20. So interesting this flatbread with cactus...would love to try since I never had you I think I rather have pan fry bread :-)
    Hope you have a wonderful week and thanks for sharing such a nice and different recipe Lisa!

  21. This is a great southwestern dish. The fry bread alone is mouth watering, but you really topped it deliciously-love the ingredients. Well done!

  22. This fried bread does looks delicious....
    Lovely topping...
    Beautiful post.

  23. This sounds like the most amazing breakfast - now if only I can get my hands on some of those nopales!

  24. Okay so...I definitely need to invest in this cookbook! I love cactus and, more than that, I love Navajo fry bread. This looks like a truly fabulous meal!

  25. What a terribly exotic take on tex mex! I bet this was an absolute joy to eat. It looks simply fabulous!
    *kisses* HH

  26. i've never had authentic navajo fry bread, just a poor imitation (that was still pretty good!). this plate of food makes my mouth water, and that's that.

  27. Lisa, I am so behind reading your blog, I need vacations...

    anyway, loved this post! THe first time I had Navajo fried bread was here in Oklahoma in a tiny restaurant that unfortunately no longer exists. I've never tried cactus, though - I bet it is a match made in heaven for the bread


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