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Native cooking column: Chowders, soups and stews

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Chowders, soups and stews were the mainstay of many ancient indigenous peoples. In a village, a soup would be started early in the day and ingredients added as they were gathered. Some tribes had communal pots from which everyone was welcome to eat. Others used smaller pots intended for members of a family or single dwelling. Native people used an array of containers and implements, a variety dictated by the resources available in different geographical areas. For example, in the Northeast, birch bark was widely used to fashion cook pots as well as serving plates. Seashells of all sizes, gourds, bark containers, turtle shells, wood and woven reed or bark trays were also put to use. The earth itself was transformed into an oven; a pit, dug and lined with leaves or seaweed, held the hot coals of a mature fire, where items were placed to roast or bake. Clay was the most common cookery material used across the continent until the time of contact with the Europeans.

Contact brought iron pots which came to be coveted by Native cooks even in the most remote areas. Obtained by trade and passed down through families, iron pots superseded clay vessels in many Native cultures from 1600 on. At Native American cooking demonstrations, I use very old iron pots as well as clay pots which have been specially made to reproduce the originals. Either of them is perfect for soups, chowders and stews. Today, there are no "they used to ..." or past tenses necessary. We use any modern or old pot that we have and we are still here and still cookin' better than ever.

Pumpkins are just a beautiful vegetable and versatile to boot. The following chowder is very delicious, but may be too rich for your taste or your diet restrictions. If you eliminate or substitute low fat ingredients it will not alter the satisfying taste that much.

Pumpkin Chowder

1 2-pound pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 large potatoes (or 3 medium,) peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound bacon
2 large onions, peeled and shopped
2 tablespoons flour
4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup sherry, optional
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 cup light cream
Salt & pepper to taste
Scallion & sour cream as garnish, optional

Cook bacon very slowly in a large saut? pan, remove and drain on paper towel. Leave some of the bacon fat in the pan and saut? the onion in it. When onion becomes golden and translucent, add the sherry and cook off alcohol, about 1 or 2 minutes.

In a large stock-type pot, cook the potatoes and pumpkin until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain off most of the cooking water, leaving less than 1 cup in pot, add chicken broth and blend in flour before returning pumpkin and potatoes to pot. Now add the saut?ed onion, curry powder and crumble the well-cooked bacon in. Let this simmer a couple of minutes before adding the cream. Serve hot in bowls with a teaspoon of sour cream and a sprinkle of scallion or dill for variety.

Practically every cookbook has a different version of "Indian Pudding." Actually, it is not a Native dish as most people assume. The Europeans referred to cornmeal as "Indian Corn" so they would not confuse it with wheat or other grains, hence the name. This pudding is basically a corn mush made with molasses, milk and cornmeal. Later versions added eggs, sugar, butter and spices.

Indian Pudding

1-1/2 cup raisins
3 cups scalded milk
1-1/2 cups cold milk
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar (brown or white)
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup butter

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Add raisins to hot milk. Mix cornmeal into cold milk and add slowly to hot mixture. Heat slowly until mixture thickens, 10-15 minutes. Now add molasses, salt, sugar, ginger, nutmeg and butter. Pour into a two-quart baking dish and add remaining 1/2 cup cold milk into center of pudding. Do not stir.

Set the baking dish in a pan of cold water (about 1-inch) and bake at 300 degrees for 2-1/2 hours. Cool at least 2 hours before serving. Serves 4-6.

During the holidays we all get a bit excessive now and then. To be moderate with food and drink can be stressful, but it does pay off. A good trick is to have a glass of water in between drinks, and nurse it, at a party. Or, force yourself to have a glass of water every hour on the hour. This way you dilute the baddies and keep an eye on the time. I think it is more fun to watch the escalation of voices and perks of personalities if you are in a place where people are drinking. You're having fun and you're in control.

Notes & Tips:

oIf you are entertaining, make sure you are there and not tied to a stove. Take as many shortcuts as you can. Make stuff ahead and buy and cheat where you can. You can't be a complete caterer (read slave) and enjoy the party too. Planning ahead is essential. If you are too perfect about everything, people will feel intimidated. Let them help. A buffet is always a good choice for more than six or eight people. Pretend you are a guest and place drinks and food platters where you would expect them to be located.

oI get the best e-mails with the most wonderful jokes, sayings and lessons. Here's a sample of some more:

Everyone hears what you say; friends listen to what you have to say.

Look for opportunities, not for guarantees or entitlements.

We have eyes in front of our heads because it is more important to look ahead than to look back. Life is what's coming, not what was.

Butterflies taste with their feet, and elephants can't jump.