Eating locally, seasonably and sustainably — a radical notion just a few decades ago — is now deeply woven into our mainstream definition of healthy. And rightly so. When you eat that way, you are probably getting the freshest possible food, reducing your carbon footprint and enjoying a balanced variety of edibles based on their seasonality.
You are also connecting in a meaningful way to your community and ecosystem. Few appreciate this more than Sean Sherman, founder of the Sioux Chef and co-author of the new cookbook “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.” His mission is to educate people about indigenous food — the very essence of local, seasonal and sustainable eating — and to help people see the health benefits, taste and abundance of the food that identifies North America. With that in mind, and with the fall harvest in full swing, I decided to highlight a handful of ingredients that are uniquely American — some of the foods that sustained people on these lands for generations and that are still widely available today. Most are familiar ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen, but being aware of their heritage and health benefits can shed new light on them and foster a new level of appreciation and inspiration.
The cranberry we know and love is a unique species indigenous to North America, and its tartness, brilliant hue and nutritional benefits are part of the tapestry of Native American cuisine. Cranberries grow on a low, vining perennial plant in bogs in the cooler areas of the Northern Hemisphere and are harvested in the fall when they are crimson red. They don’t grow underwater, though many people have that impression because water is often used to float the fruit to make it more easily harvested. Besides being turned into sauces and eaten plain, cranberries have been used by indigenous people to make what could be considered the original energy bar — a food called pemmican or wasna that is a mixture of dried meat or fish, berries, rendered fat, and seasonings. The fruit is rich in health-protective antioxidants and a type of polyphenols that may help prevent urinary tract infections. It is also a source of vitamin C, manganese and fiber. There is every reason to branch out from the once-a-year cranberry sauce habit and incorporate this native fruit into a variety of meals and snacks fresh throughout the fall and dried or frozen any time of year.
The native people of northeastern North America were the first known to tap the maple tree to harvest its sap and produce maple syrup and maple sugar. Other trees, like birch, can also be tapped, but maple yields the most copious and concentrated sap. Maple syrup not only has a distinctive, sweet caramel flavor, but it also provides a small but significant amount of minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and zinc, and is an excellent source of riboflavin and manganese. Still, maple syrup is an added sweetener, and it is expensive, so use it sparingly and as a replacement for more highly refined sugars in cereals, sauces, dressings and baked goods. It also happens to be delicious in coffee.
Wild rice is not technically a true rice; it is the seed of an aquatic grass native to the Americas. It is nutty, chewy and, like all seeds, especially rich in protein and minerals. In his book, Sherman details the sacred nature of wild rice for indigenous people: “It is the one traditional food served at all the important ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and births for many tribes that have harvested it for centuries.” It is traditionally served in a multitude of ways, such as simmering it in soups or brewing it into healing teas. Try it instead of white rice in a chicken-and-rice soup, on its own or mixed with another grain as a base for a grain bowl, or in a pilaf.
European settlers of the American West called the large, shaggy bovines that roamed the Great Plains buffalo, and the name stuck. But the animals, which have roamed North America for thousands of years, are bison, distant relatives of the buffalo. Nowadays, you can find the meat sold by either name in grocery stores and on restaurant menus. It has a rich, beefy taste but is very lean, with many cuts having less fat and fewer calories than skinless chicken breast. Because it’s so lean, it’s important not to overcook the steaks — they are ideally served medium-rare — whereas bison stew meat is best cooked low and slow in a braise.
In his book, Sherman quotes Joseph Marshall, Native American poet and historian, saying: “The bison is symbolic of the relationship we have to the earth and to each other. This animal has kept us alive for generations, providing us with food, clothing, medicine and tools.” With that in mind, next time you choose red meat, try bison, perhaps with a side of wild rice pilaf studded with dried cranberries in a maple-sweetened vinaigrette. Not only would it make a tasty, healthful meal, but it would also be an edible connection to the gifts of this land — and a celebration of the culinary culture of its indigenous people.