Chef Freddie Bitsoie is on a mission to promote, demystify and define "Native American cuisine."
Since the Diné chef studied the emerging science of "food anthropology," which examines the relationship between food and culture, at The University of New Mexico, he has embarked on a culinary journey throughout North America to learn about Indigenous people and traditional foods.
"North America is full with rich and diverse Indigenous food cultures that many of us have overlooked throughout the years," he says on the program overview of Reservations Not Required, a new program where Native cultures, food and travel intersect, starring Bitsoie. On the show, which is currently in production, Bitsoie travels to different regions and gets up close and personal with the locals, participating in their songs, dances, ceremonies and, of course, enjoying and cooking their traditional foods.
Most recently, on November 24, Thanksgiving Day, Bitsoie prepared the Heard Museum's second annual Harvest Feast. Pegged as "An Edible Gallery," the meal was a seamless continuation of the museum's American Indian art and history. "Nowhere in the world has food ever intentionally separated people," Bitsoie told the Phoenix New Times. "It always brought people together. Every culture in the world celebrates the harvest. It's that primordial sense of us being animals knowing that we're thankful to have food."
Part of grasping the concept of "Native American cuisine," Bitsoie says, is recognizing that Native food is geographically and culturally unique. Every Tribe defines Native cuisine differently. Here, Bitsoie provides Indian Country Today Media Network with a cross-cultural celebration of winter recipes historically prepared or enjoyed by respective Tribes from five Native regions of North America.
Region 1: The North East — Penobscot Nation
“It was late fall when I visited Indian Island Maine and spoke with a small museum curator,” Bitsoie says. “I asked about general foods and dishes that people from these regions depended on when weather was tough. His response was the sea. Clams always assured people a meal, even when game hunting was a success. I do remember one thing he said, it was something like, ‘People did eat to survive, but they also ate good to enjoy life.’ He mentioned to me that clams with sunchokes were always a favorite and many different tribes had their way of preparing them.
This experience inspired me to create a clam and sunchoke with leek soup.
Clam Soup with Leek
2.5 lbs. clams, meat only
2 leeks, diced
2 bay leaves
2 onions, diced
pepper and salt
30 oz. chicken stock
2 lb. potato, diced
2 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons oil
10 oz. clam juice
1. In a heavy bottom pot, heat oil.
2. Sweat leeks onion, thyme and bay leaves in oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. This should take about 20 to 25 minutes; do not allow to burn.
3. Add potatoes and cover with stock and clam juice.
4. Allow the potatoes to cook until they are fork tender.
5. Add the clams. If the clams are fresh, allow them to cook for about 7-10 minutes. If they are from a can or jarred, they only have to be heated through.
6. Adjust seasoning and serve hot.
Region 2: Southern Mississippian — Mississippi Band of Choctaw
“Food and its relationship with the environment has never been so tested with relocation,” Bitsoie says. Tribes have adapted their traditional recipes to match what the land can provide. “Certain varieties of crops were not able to grow when tribes were moved, nor was the meat the same. Therefore, recipes and ingredients changed with the exception of beans. Beans have always been a huge staple in Native cultures of the Mississippi and beyond.”
Three Bean Ragout with Tomato
1 14 oz. can red beans
4 springs fresh thyme
1 14 oz. can black beans
2 bay leaves
1 14 oz. can white beans
2 carrots, diced
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 celery ribs, diced small
1 small onion, diced small
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons canola oil
1. Drain all the beans and rinse very well!
2. In a medium sauce pan, pour in oil and sweat the onion, thyme, bay leaves, carrots and celery until they are fork tender.
3. Add all beans, tomatoes and chicken stock.
4. Allow this to cook and reduce; try not mix too much because this will make the beans mushy.
5. Remove the thyme and bay leaves.
6. Adjust seasoning.
Region 3: Western Great Lakes Region — White Earth Nation
The Western Great Lakes Region, which encompasses current-day Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and the Great Lakes, also runs north into Canada. “The region is vast with many different cultures, but all share a similar richness in foods,” Freddie says. “One food surpasses all popular contest: wild rice. A friend and colleague once said to me once, ‘It’s hard to find someone from this region who does not like wild rice.; Add a seared duck breast or nicely cooked walleye to this wild rice and berry salad.”
Wild Rice Salad with Wild Berries
2 pounds wild rice
1 gallon water
½ pound pine nuts, roasted
½ pound dried blueberries
1 pound spring mix
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 small shallot, chopped fine
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
½ lemon, juiced
1. Place wild rice, onion, celery, carrot and water in heavy bottom pot and cook for about 30 minutes or until ready.
2. Remove the carrot, celery and onion.
3. Drain the rice and allow to cool.
4. After the wild rice has cooled, add the blueberries and pine nuts.
5. Make a simple vinaigrette with ingredients above.
6. Pour enough vinaigrette to coat the wild rice. Do not add too much, just enough to coat.
7. This can be served hot or cold. If served cold, serve on top of a spring mix salad.
Region 4: Sonoran — Tohono O'odham Nation
“Sadly, Rabbit is not a very popular dish, as it used to be,” Freddie says. “Many ideas and thoughts have changed the perspective on what food is or isn’t. Rabbit was once a very popular dish throughout the country, especially in the Southwest. I was at Desert Rain Cafe one day in Sells, Arizona, and I was randomly talking to people about foods they miss. An older gentlemen mentioned rabbit. What stuck with me was what he said: ‘We used to catch them and cook them, and now younger kids laugh at us when we tell them [that]. But I laugh at kids for getting their food served to them wrapped in paper.’” If prefered, chicken or turkey may be substituted for rabbit in this recipe.
Stewed Rabbit with Tomato and Parsnip
1 large onion, diced small
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 celery ribs, diced small
4 slices of bacon, chopped
3 parsnips, diced
1 rabbit, quartered
4 springs of thyme
1 cup Flour
3 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper
1 quart crushed tomatoes
1 cup white wine
3 bay leaves
3 tablespoons canola oil
1. Fabricate the rabbit (if you don?t know how, ask your butcher)
2. Dust the rabbit quarters with seasoned flour (seasoned flour is flour with salt and pepper)
3. In a heavy bottom wide pan, cook the bacon till the fat is rendered, and remove the bacon
3. Dust off extra flour from the rabbit and sear in the bacon fat until a crust is formed. Remove the rabbit and place on a plate.
4. In to the pan, reduce the heat a bit and add the onion, celery, parsnips, thyme, bay leaves, garlic, cooked bacon, 3 pinches of salt and pepper
5. Allow all these ingredients to cook for about 10 - 15 minutes
6. Deglaze the pot with the white wine, and reduce till the wine is dry
7. Add the tomatoes and chicken stock
8. Add the rabbit to the mixture
9. If using an oven safe pot, cover and place in a pre-heated 350-degree oven and braise for 3 1/2 hours
10. If not using an oven safe pan, pour the mixture into a deep roasting pan and cover well and place in preheated oven
11. Adjust seasoning and remove bay leaves. Serve hot.
Region 5: Pacific Northwest — Lummi Nation
“While in Alaska doing some work, I met a PhD of social sciences from the Lummi Nation. She was very insistent about salmon and how important it is to most peoples of the Pacific up to Alaska,” Freddie says. The woman recommended numerous ways to cook salmon. “Our conversation was the inspiration for this dish. Though this is not a common dish throughout the Pacific Northwest Region, salmon quiche is sure to please.”
Smoked Salmon Quiche with Seaweed
1 pie crust (ready-made is fine)
1 cup parmesan cheese
5 strips of bacon, diced small
1/4 cup chopped chives
1 ½ cup milk
½ teaspoon nutmeg
3 eggs, beaten
½ pound smoked salmon
salt and pepper
1 small onion, diced
1/4 cup dried wakame or Nori
½ pound of kelp
1. Blind-bake the pie crust. (Blind-baking is the process of baking a pie crust or other pastry without the filling.) Lay a sheet of parchment paper over the crust and pour rice or dried beans onto the parchment paper. Fill the inside of the pie crust and place in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes or until the edges turn a bit brown. Remove the beans or rice and set aside. Set the crust aside.
2. In a saute pan, cook the bacon, kelp, seaweed (wakame or nori), and onion.
3. Set aside and remove excess fat from the pan.
4. Shred the salmon to desired sizes.
5. In a large bowl add the beaten eggs, milk, nutmeg, salmon, seaweed mixture and chives. Mix well and season.
6. Pour into pie crust. If desired, cover pie and the edge of the crust with foil to prevent from over cooking.
7. Place into 350-degree oven for about 30-40 minutes or until done.
8. This can be served hot or at room temperature.