Beans and corn (Recipe: Twisted Three Sisters Soup)
Today, Arlo joins The Perfect Pantry as our first guest blogger. Many of you remember her letters earlier this year. A wonderful and generous storyteller, Arlo writes from Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, and I'm delighted to welcome her. Watch for her posts once a month or so.
Guest post by Arlo from Ottawa
Years ago I was asked by my son’s school council if I had an Aboriginal recipe I could prepare for our first ever Stone Soup Café, a fundraising event that would sell the students' hand-decorated bowls and a range of parent- and restaurant-donated soups.
Being new to the Ottawa region at the time, I immediately called a friend who is indigenous to this territory and asked her how to make corn soup, a traditional fare at many eastern Native festivals and ceremonies. Sadly, she never really made the soup herself and didn’t know where I could buy white corn either. So that year I ended up making a venison stew, a popular feast dish in my home prairies. The following year I made Metis boullets, a meatball soup made every New Year’s Eve. This year, I was determined to succeed with Three Sisters Soup, a recipe that has been passed down since the time when corn, beans and squash were first planted.
Three Sisters Soup is as diverse as the people who have adapted it. Top contenders for claiming the origin of this recipe include all of the Six Nations tribes on the eastern seaboard, and all of the tribes in the area known as the Four Corners in the US (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado). Throughout the centuries, regional variations have all become traditional fare, and each Three Sisters Soup maker believes hers or his is the original version. And I agree -- each should have that prize as most are tasty, full of fiber and good things, and just make you feel with each spoonful that you are connected with Mother Earth.
Modern day organic growers loudly proclaim the benefits of companion planting, a technique practiced by indigenous gardeners since dirt was invented. Corn or maize is planted, followed by beans and squash. The corn supports the climbing beans, and the fat, wide leaves of the low-lying squash keep all of their roots shaded, retain moisture, and deter weeds and greedy insects. The beans also capture nitrogen from the air, which the corn absolutely needs. Vegans may not appreciate this tidbit, but sometimes on the east coast fish and eel were once used to enrich the soil as fertilizer and to discourage pests, but I am not sure if this is still practiced.
Many legends surround the Three Sisters, so much that many eastern tribes refer to them as spiritual entities and the sustainers of life. Consumers of corn, beans and squash did not have to rely on meat, fish, fowl or other animal products to survive, as the combination provided essential amino acids and complimentary proteins. Frances Moore Lappé would be pleased, as were the pilgrims who survived on this mix 400 years ago.
My first attempts with a traditional recipe tasted like salty bland dishwater, and as I was competing with soup masterpieces from around the world (we have many cultures in our school) and with Ottawa’s finest restaurants, I kicked it up a notch. I checked a couple of our southwestern cousins’ versions and added ground chile peppers and sage (native to North America). I used dried hominy corn, which is more traditional, but regular or canned hominy can do in a pinch, especially for speed cooking.
There are many Three Sisters Soup recipes that throw in things like curry powder and yogurt, which I am sure taste delicious, but my version tries to keep with the original spirit of the soup -- that is, Sister Corn, Sister Bean, and Sister Squash.
And almost everything in this soup comes from my pantry.
Twisted Three Sisters soup
Created for Stone Soup Café at the Connaught School, Ottawa, Ontario. Serves 10-12; with corn bread or whole wheat bannock, this makes a very complete and filling meal. Like many soups, it's even better the next day.
1 cup dried yellow or white hominy corn (or 2 large cans)
1 cup dried white navy beans (or 2 large cans)
1 acorn squash (peeled and diced)
1 butternut squash (peeled and diced)
1 medium zucchini (sliced into 1/2-inch rounds, then quartered)
1 medium red onion diced
2 cups fresh or frozen green beans, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp fine ground black pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red chile flakes, or more to taste
1 tsp dried ground sage
2 Tbsp margarine, butter or oil
Water -- lots
If you are using dried corn and beans, they will take a lot longer to cook than the squash, so start with the beans and corn first. Even if you have pre-soaked overnight, count on 1-1/2 to 2 hours simmering on the stove to cook them. Use lots of water and DO NOT add salt yet. I use separate pots because, oh, I don’t know, I am afraid the corn will beat the beans or vice-versa! Canned beans will work when time is short, but I prefer the non-processed version. Reduce salt if using canned corn or beans unless they are sodium-free.
When beans and hominy are tender, combine into one large pot and add the butternut and acorn squash, and seasonings (salt, pepper, chile flakes, sage). Simmer 15 minutes until squash is still firm but not hard. Add zucchini, red onions and green beans and simmer another 10 minutes or so until all are tender. Depending on preference, pieces can be left intact or mashed a bit. Add butter or margarine or oil, adjust seasonings. If too watery, add flour paste or cornstarch paste to thicken (let simmer another 3-5 minutes if doing this) or pureé a cup or two of the mix. If too dense, add more water. I prefer mine like a chowder but others may like it thinner.