Native Cooking

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Buffalo has become a hot topic again. It was gaining national prominence in the late l990s, but didn't take off, disappointing many growers. Then, in 2003, according to The New York Times, the popularity of bison had a second coming. This is due to the health benefits, and praise from chefs and from environmentalists. Sales are up and still climbing. Bison/buffalo meat has much less fat than beef, fewer calories and a significant amount of iron. The best thing about it is that they eat grass, not grain. Some controversy arose over finishing them off with grain before slaughter or leaving them exclusively on grass. I imagine this will work itself out in time.

As of press time, there has never been a case of ''mad cow,'' or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in buffalo. There are an estimated 500,000 buffalo in the country right now. People love the meat, as it is delicious, rich and versatile. Some of the tougher cuts that were not desirable before have been turned into delicious meals through slow cooking and innovative chefs. Home cooks have also found many ways to cook this delicious meat, most beginning with ground buffalo as I did. I started with buffalo burgers, then chili, meatballs, meatloaf (or buffaloaf, ha ha), finding, however, that just about any recipe using ground beef can be exchanged for ground buffalo. Here and there you might want to add a little fat or other ingredient for more moistness. Marinating works well for many cuts, but not ground meat. In fact, marinating stew cuts really adds a lot of flavor and tenderizes in the process.

Prices are coming down, too. It's still a bit more expensive than beef, but the more you buy it, the demand goes up and prices will surely go down. The more we buy it, especially from Native growers, the better we will eat and help reduce the price sooner! It's a win-win situation.

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Ground Buffalo Chili

This chili is best made in a slow cooker or a large, heavy saucepan. If you use a slow cooker, it can be composed early in the day and ready by dinnertime. I add sausage here to give it a little varital flavor, but it isn't really necessary.

1 pound ground buffalo

1/2 pound chorizo (or sweet or hot Italian sausage, even smoked sausage)

1 large onion, chopped

1 16-oz. can of each: light red kidney beans, dark red kidney beans, navy pea beans, pink pinto beans

1 rounded tablespoon chili powder

1 rounded teaspoon (or more) ground cumin

1 tablespoon molasses or brown sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown the meats and onion. While meat is browning, put the beans in the heavy pot or slow cooker. You can drain off any liquid in the beans, or let it cook off. Add the meat, onion, chili powder, cumin, molasses, salt and pepper. Stir to blend. Simmer on low and check frequently if using a pot on the stovetop to make sure there's no sticking on the bottom. You can add some water, tomato sauce or beef broth if needed. Note: A little grated cheese for garnish or a dollop of sour cream is good if the chili is too spicy hot.

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Buffaritos

2 pounds ground buffalo

2 onions, chopped

2 bell peppers, chopped

1 jar taco sauce

1 small can tomato sauce

1 teaspoon chili powder

8 large flour tortillas

2 cups Monterey jack cheese, grated

Brown the meat in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add onions and pepper; cook until they are tender. Now add the taco sauce, tomato sauce and chili powder. Put mixture down the center of each tortilla and top with some cheese, about 1/4 cup each, then fold up and serve.

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Mommy Mix

1 box elbow (or penne) pasta, cooked and chilled

1 pound ground buffalo

1 can diced tomatoes

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 large onion

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Tomato sauce, optional

Brown the buffalo, onion and bell pepper, breaking up the meat as it cooks, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, garlic powder, salt, pepper and cooked pasta. Let all simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently. You might want to add some tomato sauce at this point. Turn off heat and let dish ''rest,'' or refrigerate and heat the next day. Note: We always liked this best reheated for some reason. Maybe the flavors need time to mingle.

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Notes and Tips

-- There is nothing quite like a buffalo-bacon burger on a large bun smothered with sweet sauteed onions!

-- Ground buffalo is excellent for stuffing squash and peppers, as it is drier than ground beef and doesn't cause ''mushiness'' as do some greasy meats.

-- Lettuce is the only vegetable - or fruit actually - that is never sold frozen, canned, cooked or processed.