The Three Sisters – corn, squash and beans – feature prominently in Native American food tradition. For centuries, Indigenous people planted these nutrient-rich staples together because as these crops grow in unison, each plant helps the other thrive. Corn acts as a natural garden lattice for climbing beans which, in turn, provide rich nitrogen to the soil. Squash leaves at the base offer cover and protection from pests. This act of taking care of each other, like siblings, is responsible for the name and native myths created around this important agricultural triad.
If you’re unfamiliar with Indigenous cuisine, a wonderful way to experience the Three Sisters this summer is with this bright-tasting Native American chilled salad, densely packed with fresh ingredients, including authentically grown heirloom tepary beans from Ramona Farms in Arizona, amaranth and sweet potato leaves, and fresh bicolor corn roasted with acorn squash.
The tepary bean is native to the Southwest and has been an important part of the diet of the Native communities and shared through tribal trade routes for generations. The tepary is uniquely delicious and high in nutrients and can be easily incorporated into family menus. Each variety of the tepary (white, brown, black) has its own flavor.– Ramona from Ramona Farms
The extra effort spent soaking beans overnight, carefully roasting or grilling the vegetables and whisking a homemade vinaigrette dressing from scratch makes for a unique, flavor-rich dish with a satisfying texture. Colorful, rustic bites interspersed among leafy greens also serve as an impressive presentation centerpiece for your summer table.
Not all dishes lead to meaningful conversation, but the history behind this combination may enlighten dinner guests who associate fry bread with the cuisine of Native Americans and little else. The fact is, the diets of Native tribes – before European colonization or the horrific assimilation that followed with a dependence on government rations – consisted mainly of wild and planted crops, berries, nuts and wild game or fish. Flour, butter and dairy products were non-existent. Tribal food was the original clean eating before it became a modern-day fad.
To successfully prepare this dish, cook and chill corn, beans and squash separately ahead of time. If using white heirloom beans, you must make sure you store them separately until mixing the final dish so that they don’t lose their pristine color. Consider featuring three different colors of beans for your salad for more visual appeal and complexity.
When you are ready to serve your guests, gently combine ingredients. Add dressing and leafy, lush greens last and mix with a wooden spoon until your salad is lightly coated. Taste for salt and serve immediately, as the greens will wilt. I recommend a sprinkling of ghost pepper or black lava sea salt. Do not use table salt to season this dish except for when cooking beans.
Serve this dish with a special brunch menu or bring this dish as a side for backyard brunches or bbqs. Add seared or braised bison or duck for a memorable dinner course.
- 1 cup of tepary beans
- 1 cup red beans
- 1/2 cup loosely packed amaranth leaves
- 1/2 cup loosely packed sweet potato leaves
- 1/2 or 1 roasted acorn squash (deseed and cut into small chunks)
- 2 ears of roasted corn with kernels removed
- Ghost pepper salt
- 1/3 cup of olive oil
- 1 tbsp of honey
- 1 tsp chili paste
- 1/3 red wine vinegar
- Large pinch of coarse salt
Soak beans overnight with water and pinches of ghost pepper salt. Use 3 cups of water to each cup of beans. Rinse beans and add to a pot and cover with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and continue for approximately an hour or until beans are creamy on the inside but not mushy. Add more salt during this process. Cook beans and prep beans separately to maintain the white color of the tepary beans. Remove beans to their own container(s) and add a little of the bean juice and a splash of olive oil and generous pinches of salt to taste. Gently mix, seal well and leave in the fridge until you’re ready to assemble your salad.
Roast ears of corn (still in husk) and the whole acorn squash in the oven for approximately 45 minutes at 375. Squash is done when tender. Peel back husk to check on corn and remove when tender. Remove kernels by slicing lengthwise down with a sharp blade.
Loosely shred greens and substitute with other leafy greens if you can’t find amaranth and sweet potato leaves (I found mine at the local Asian market). Mint leaves are also a good option for this dish.
Prep ingredients a day or two ahead of time and keep them separately.
Mix vinaigrette ingredients and salt to taste and keep in a jar. Gently combine all ingredients except for the dressing right before serving. Add dressing slowly and mix with a wooden spoon until lightly coated. Taste for salt. Sprinkle in ghost pepper salt for additional heat. Serve immediately as the greens will wilt.
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