Native Cooking

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This is the “Moon of the Moose Hunter” for the Abenaki; it is also “Maple Syrup Moon” this month. Each culture has its own name for this time of the first stirrings of the earth as it moves into the beauty of spring.

This has not been a good year for maple syrup production. The sap is collected between the first thaw and the first budding of the leaves. For good sap to run, the weather needs to be cold enough to freeze the roots of the tree with good snow cover to keep them really cold. In addition, the temperature must go from very cold at night to warm sunlight during the day.

In many parts of the Northeast, it’s been too warm for the sap to run properly and it can become bitter. If you do buy any, or make your own, it’s best to store it in the refridgerator after opening and it should last about one year. I can hardly imagine it lasting that long unless you have a lot of it, because it’s so delicious.

Native people of eastern Canada, New York and New England have harvested this delectable sweet for eons. Early records say that a V-shaped cut was made in the bark, then a hollow elder branch was inserted at the bottom of the V. The sap was collected under the spout in birch bark pails, baskets and, on occasion, leather bags. Each tree yields about two gallons of sap every 24 hours. Since it goes sour and bitter quickly if exposed to the sun, collection must be diligent.

As Native-made maple sugar became popular as a tourist item, the people made carved wooden molds of animals and birds to shape the sugar. Zogalinebi is the Abenaki word for maple sap, but zogalimelases is the Abenaki word for maple syrup. Not so oddly, there are 98 words for water in the Abenaki language.

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<b>Maple Syrup Popcorn</b>

4 quarts popped corn

2 cups real maple syrup

2 cups granulated sugar (or substitute)

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1 cup chopped nuts (peanuts, walnuts or pecans)

Combine the sugar, syrup and vinegar in a heavy saucepan. Use a candy thermometer and stir mixture over low heat until it reaches 275 degrees. Remove from heat and add butter; stir well. Add nuts (if desired) and pour this slowly into the popcorn in a very large bowl. Toss well to coat. Cool and watch it disappear.

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<b>Zesty Artichoke Chicken</b>

4 boneless chicken breasts, halved

1/4 cup butter or olive oil

2 small garlic cloves, minced

1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced thin

1/2 lemon, sliced thin

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon flour

1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon rosemary

1/4 cup white vermouth or chicken broth

1 14-oz. can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered

Use a mallet to pound the chicken as thin as possible, 1/2- to 1/4-inch thick. Cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Heat butter or oil over medium heat and saute chicken until just tender. Remove with a slotted spatula and set aside.

Cook garlic, lemon and mushrooms in the same pan for about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with flour, salt, pepper, oregano and rosemary. Cook and stir for a minute. Add vermouth or broth and bring to a boil until mixture thickens. Add artichokes and chicken and simmer all for 2 or 3 minutes to heat through.

This is great served with a brown or white rice and wild rice mix.

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<b>So-Good Bean Spread</b>

1 can great northern beans, drained

2 or 3 garlic cloves

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1 dash Cajun seasoning

1 dash hot pepper sauce

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Crackers, tortilla chips or pita bread

Pulse the garlic in a food processor about 5 seconds, then add beans, cumin, lime juice, seasoning and pepper sauce. Pulse again to combine ingredients (about 10 seconds). Pour olive oil in slowly with the processor running and mix until smooth. Transfer mix to microwave-safe serving dish and heat for 30 seconds.

This is great for drop-in company or anytime. Serve warm with crackers, tortilla chips or pita bread. It’s warm, healthy and delicious.

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<b>Notes & Tips</b>

* If your plastic wrap drives you crazy by sticking to itself, keep it in the refrigerator. This also works for regular stamps that get stuck together (not the self-adhesive type, though).

* On the side of safety, use one cutting board for meats and fish and another for veggies and cheese. Run the boards through the dishwasher or wash with hot, soapy water right after use. Oddly enough, plastic cutting boards can stand higher heat in the dishwasher than wood. If you don’t have a dishwasher, use a weak bleach solution to sanitize them.