Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Good-bye to Summer's Bounty: Lynn Alley's Three Sisters Stew

These three sisters--corn, beans, and squash--really rock it when they get together! I love food names like this that tell a bit of a story, like moros y cristianos for Cuban black beans and rice. The three sisters were often grown as a trio by Native Americans in parts of North America. Corn is the eldest sister who allows the beans to climb while the broad leaves of squash shade the soil, keeping it moist and blocking weeds from seeing the sun.

It was last fall, perhaps after a visit to the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian, that I first heard of the three sisters. The cafeteria in this museum is probably the best--and most expensive--on the National Mall (the National Gallery of Art also has good eats IMHO) and features regional dishes inspired by the original inhabitants of the Americas. Was it a three sisters casserole that caught my eye that day? I can't quite remember, but I began bookmarking recipes last October, mindful that I would be revisiting this dish in my future.

The recipes that I found, however, seemed too hybrid Italian. One used a sage pesto with pine nuts and another was a pasta casserole for two. But a couple of days ago a co-worker and I were discussing his love of home cooked beans from scratch vs. the can. There's really no debate. Sure it's easy to open a can and no pantry should be without a few cans of beans like chickpeas, cannelinis, and/or black beans. But cooking beans oneself from dried beans is laughably simple, not to mention healthy and affordable. So he got me thinking that I too should be economizing and making beans from scratch, especially because it can all be done in the slow cooker while I'm out for the day.

Serendipitously I found a recipe in The Gourmet Slow Cooker Volume II for a three sisters stew, full of New World ingredients (i.e. Mexican) only. The other thing I liked about this recipe is that Lynn doesn't recommend soaking the beans overnight nor doing the quick soak (bring beans to a boil for a couple minutes then turn off the heat and let sit for an hour or two). While it's not a big deal to remember a day ahead that tomorrow is bean cooking day, I may not know until I've gotten up in the morning that I want beans for dinner that night so the soaking window might be closed.

There is debate among the culinary cognoscenti about the necessity of soaking anyway. Any authentic Mexican cookbook will not recommend the soak. Recipes I've seen from Europe as well as conventional wisdom usually insist on the soak. Rick Bayless scoffs at the idea and he's got the whole of Mexico to back him up. Without the soak, the beans may take longer to cook, but cooking beans isn't like cooking pasta in that the cooking time may vary widely depending on the beans themselves and how old they are anyway (older beans may take longer to come to doneness). I wasn't concerned though because I put the beans in my six quart slow cooker at 8:00 in the morning and knew that I wouldn't be home until after 6:00 so ten hours had to be long enough and it was.

Perhaps my beans were a bit overdone because some of them had given up a lot of starch and really thickened the stew beautifully IMO, but I could still see whole beans. That might also have occurred because I used both black beans and pink beans and probably different types of beans cook at different paces. If I were making a dish where most beans had to be kept whole, the super long cook might have been an issue, but that didn't matter for making a stew. In fact I was tempted to add a chopped up square of baking chocolate a la Tyler Florence to add even more silkiness, but refrained since I was interested in trying the dish as written since it was my first time preparing.

A lot of Amazon reviews for Lynn's slow cooker recipes criticize her for adding steps of grinding spices or browning meat or sauteing onions and garlic on the stove top. When slow cookers first became popular in the 1970s in the heyday of "convenience cooking" (when I was growing up incidentally), the "dump in all your ingredients in the morning and come home to your delicious dinner at the end of the day" was the selling point and this mentality has persisted to this day in some quarters. However, the slow cooker is not a magical cooking vessel. The end result depends on the quality of your ingredients and the steps taken to ensure a delicious result. This may often necessitate doing part of the preparation on top of the stove. Anyone who's made chili in a slow cooker is probably used to this idea as ground meat always has to be browned before adding. And if you're using preground spices, I'd just use the same amount as for whole. Whenever I measure whole seeds, I never level so a rounded teaspoon of whole seeds approximates closely enough a level measure of the same spice in my experience.

Now I'm going to sound like a hypocrite because I did not follow my own recommendation! I did not brown the onion at all, but just added it right in with the beans and chicken stock in the first step. The Three Sisters Stew is nearly a dish that follows the 1970s ethos of dump it all in and come home to a delicious meal. This was a move of pure laziness as I was trying to get to work and hadn't given myself enough time to saute the onion. I can't say that the dish suffered at all, but I'll attribute half of that to the quality of my spices and other ingredients from the farmers market. But browning meat? That is a step that should never be omitted.

Finally, this recipe defied other bean hegemony in addition to the no soak. I added marinara sauce to the beans from the beginning. Now I'd always heard that cooking beans in acidic liquid keeps them from reaching doneness, so I was skeptical of cooking the beans with a tomato based sauce, but no worries, mate! Perhaps ten hours was enough to overcome the situation, perhaps it was never a problem to begin with!

Three Sisters Stew
Adapted from Lynn Alley’s The Gourmet Slow Cooker Volume II: Regional Comfort-Food Classics
Makes 4 to 6 servings

  • 2 cups dried pinto, Anasazi or red beans, rinsed [I used a half pound each of black and pink beans]
  • 8 cups water or stock [I used chicken stock]
  • 1 cup tomato or marinara sauce
  • 1 tablespoon olive or corn oil
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon canned chili in adobo sauce, with sauce
  • 1 poblano chili, seeded and chopped [I used two poblanos]
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped [I used 5 cloves of roasted garlic that I happened to have on hand]
  • 1 pound chorizo sausage, sliced [I used 12 ounces of chicken and turkey habanero sausage, obviously not included for a vegetarian stew]
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, crushed [next time I'll toast the spices before crushing]
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 3 ears corn, cut into 2-inch lengths [I trimmed the kernels off the cob instead because it's easier to eat that way]
  • 2 zucchini squash, sliced [1 pound of trimmed mini patty pan squash would do nicely here as they hold their shape after prolonged cooking]
  • 1 cup beer
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • chopped cilantro, optional
  • sour cream, optional

Combine beans, water and tomato sauce in the slow cooker. Heat oil in large saute pan over medium-high. Saute onion for about 10 minutes, until lightly browned. [I’m a total hypocrite for not doing this step but I was pressed for time!] Transfer to the slow cooker; add chilis and garlic. [Next time I might just add the whole sausages at this step to let them steep in the stew, but maybe they would add too much salt and/or acidity] Cover and cook on low 6 to 8 hours, until the beans are very tender.

Brown chorizo in a saute pan over medium-high heat, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain. Add the chorizo, cumin, coriander, chili powder, corn, zucchini and beer to the cooker and continue cooking for 1 hour, until the zucchini is tender and the corn is cooked. Season to taste with salt. Serve hot, garnished with cilantro and sour cream.

1 comment:

  1. Already I'm commenting on my own piece from a day ago! misnomer if ever there was one as it is decidedly an international food database--has a three sisters stew using winter squash and canned beans. The recipe also has a footnote describing how the dish is a perfect addition to any Thanksgiving menu, which is THE American fall harvest celebration. We love to eat pumpkins/squash and display multi-colored "Indian" corn at Thanksgiving, right? With the addition of beans, you're instantly seasonally appropriate.


Please let me know what you're thinking!