Monday, April 25, 2011

Musing on American food, eating black bean and sweet potato tacos for Meatless Monday

The Three Sisters. Corn, beans, and squash. The three staples of many Native American diets and when planted together in a milpa, a remarkably sustainable way to raise crops. Eaten together, they form the basis of a diet that provides most of the nutrients a body needs. In a sense, these three form a universe.

Several years ago, I learned of the three sisters in Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, an excellent book that surveys much of the archaeological research about the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. For some reason, much of the information, though no longer in doubt in the scientific community, has not made it into standard history books, leaving many with the impression that the Americas were wide open, naturally rich with game and edible plants. A garden of Eden, virgin, untouched, when in fact it was a cultivated space, designed to produce in abundance, then emptied of its people through the tragic introduction of a foreign virus. But that part of the story many know.

So why bring this up in a blog about food? Because food is one of the most immediate and powerful ways to experience and transmit culture. Recipes are handed down from generation to generation, telling us about our history: Who made this? How did he or she make it? What was the time and place like when this was made? Also, many people identify a sense of self and a sense of home through the foods they eat, through the smells that suffuse their kitchens reminding them of their grandmothers and other family perhaps long gone. And regardless of how much we experiment with foods from other cultures and are able to enjoy and appreciate them, when we need comfort and a sense of home, we make what we know, or we adapt the new to our old traditions.

America is and is not new to me. I have now lived here most of my life and I became a U.S. citizen in December of last year, but my family hails from the North, and I lived many formative years in Sweden. Most of my relatives still live in Iceland, Finland, and Sweden. That is the culture I was raised in. In those places, I feel history in the curve of a hill and the particular green shades of springtime. But America is my new home, and part of my search to connect with this place and feel as deeply attached to it is to explore local foods.

Sadly, however, it seems that the ancient foodways of this area of the Americas are not well known. Most traditional Southern foods (and yes, Virginia is southern) seem to have been brought over from Europe and Africa and adapted to local conditions--not a bad thing, simply not reflective of what natives ate here prior to the arrival of Europeans (and in many respects familiar to me). I think to understand more about what native Americans ate, you have to look farther south. In my case, I look to Mexico, because knowledge of traditional foods and practice with ancient cooking techniques seem strong there. Of course, I suspect this is only the beginning of my exploration of American food.

For tonight's dinner, I was inspired by a recipe by Brady Evans from Kalle Bergman's Honest Cooking magazine, but I had some local conditions I needed to adapt to (the tortillas in my freezer were too small to make burritos for one) and I wanted to play my own riff on the combination of sweet potatoes and black beans. This recipe features two of the three sisters, corn and beans (I can't bring myself to figure out what to do with my last remaining winter squash yet).

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Tacos
These have three main components: beans, sweet potatoes, and chile sauce.

For the beans:
1 cup dried black beans
4-5 cups water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped (you will use the rest for the sweet potatoes)
1 cup crushed canned tomatoes
1 Tbsp cumin
1 Tbsp coriander
salt to taste

For the sweet potatoes:
2 medium sweet potatoes, 1/2 inch dice
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

For the chile sauce:
3 dried Ancho chiles (break them open and clean out the seeds)
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1 cup (or more) water
1 Tbsp dried oregano

To serve:
10 small corn tortillas
1 avocado, sliced into cubes
pepitas (toasted would be lovely, but I didn't have time to try it)
queso fresco, crumbled

  1. Pick over the beans and rinse them (sometimes dried beans can have small rocks or other debris). Boil in plain water (do NOT add salt or they will never soften) for 60-90 minutes (test after about a hour to determine if they are soft enough for you; they should maintain their integrity, but not be crunchy or hard). Set aside.
  2. Make the sauce: In a dry frying pan over medium heat (I used my trusty iron skillet of course), place your dry chiles and let them toast for a while. Turn them over from time to time until they blister a bit.
  3. Add two tablespoons olive oil to the pan with your chiles. When the oil has heated a bit, add your chopped onions. Let them cook low and slow with the chiles until they start to brown and caramelize a bit (adding some sweetness to your sauce). Then add garlic and let it become fragrant (but don't let it burn). Finally, add about a cup of water to the pan.
  4. Scrape the chiles, onion, garlic, and water out of the pan (set it aside for later) and into a blender or food processor and buzz until smooth. Add about a cup of crushed tomato. You can add more water if the consistency is too thick.
  5. Put the mixture into a small saucepan, add one tablespoon oregano, about a half tablespoon of salt (or more or less to taste) and let it bubble slowly on low heat while you work on the sweet potatoes and beans. Note that this mixture will be a bit bitter on its own, but will balance the sweetness of the sweet potatoes nicely.
  6. Add two tablespoons olive oil to the same frying pan you toasted the chiles in. Let the oil heat up, then add the onions. Cook them until they are translucent and then add the sweet potatoes. Let these cook on slow heat, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft and the onions are slightly browned. Add salt to taste and set aside (or keep warm).
  7. For the beans, add two tablespoons olive oil to another pan and fry the onions until they are slightly browned (I wanted to try using shallots, but alas, onions is what I had). Then add beans to the pan (be sure to drain them first; you can set aside the bean liquor for another use, such as for a soup, if you like). Add a  cup of crushed tomato, 1 tablespoon cumin, and 1 tablespoon coriander, and maybe a clove of crushed garlic if you like. Let the beans cook until most of the liquid evaporates and salt to taste.

Now, you have your components: tortillas (heat according to package instructions--yes I use packaged tortillas because I still don't know how to make them), beans, sweet potatoes, chile sauce, avocado, pepitas, and queso fresco. Set all these out in separate bowls to let people assemble tacos to their own tastes. These are a nice hearty meal for a Meatless Monday.



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