The Challenge: Create a dish using only ingredients native to North America.
The Husband offered me this challenge, as a way to spark my creativity. I immediately accepted, and while The Boy was at a club meeting at our local library, I settled into a chair in the Reference section with the Cambridge World History of Food.
The challenge became rather daunting; much of what we eat in North America, and the United States specifically, is not native to this land, but was brought here by our European, Asian, and African ancestors.
I recalled a Native American planting method known as the “Three Sisters”; winter squash, corn (maize), and beans benefitted in various ways by being companion-planted in the same area. Those became the base of my dish. Although I knew about cranberries, blueberries and Concord grapes being native, they didn’t have a place in this dish. Maybe next time.
Fats, sweeteners, and seasonings were a bit tougher. Cows, pigs, sheep and goats were all imported, as were sugar, pepper, most herbs, and most oil-bearing seeds and plants. Sunflowers are native, but the oil doesn’t have a lot of flavor. Bear, venison and buffalo fat are not readily available, but duck fat is, and it would add richness to the dish. Maple syrup was a no-brainer, especially here in New England. Walnuts are native to North America, and I knew they would add nutty flavor and much needed texture to the soup. I felt like I needed a grain of some kind; wild rice is one of the only native North American grains, and its slightly grassy flavor would be a nice complement to the earthiness of the squash and beans.
My final ingredients: butternut squash roasted in duck fat, kidney beans, corn and corn milk (I obtained corn milk by scraping the cut corncobs with the edge of a knife, and squeezing the pulp in a dishtowel over a bowl), walnuts candied in maple syrup, and wild rice. I puréed the squash with some water until it had the consistency I wanted for soup, poured it back into the soup pot and added the beans, rice, and corn kernels to warm through. I splashed in the corn milk at the end to sweeten it up a touch, and garnished the soup with the walnuts and a drizzle of maple syrup. The soup was salted only at the end, in the serving bowls, in the spirit of the challenge; while there would have been access to salt, it was not in great supply, and would have had more utilitarian uses than just wildly sprinkling it over every ingredient.
The soup was quite hearty, and surprisingly, quite flavorful and satisfying. The roasted squash and the maple syrup added smoky depth I might have achieved with pepper or cumin or cinnamon, if I had access to them, and adding the raw corn kernels and corn milk gave the soup a light sweetness and a fresh bit of crunch. Taking a look at the ingredients, I see it’s also gluten-free and dairy-free, quite by accident, due to the challenge’s geographical limits. Interesting.
Answering the question, “Do you know where your food comes from?” has become more and more mainstream over the last decade. This challenge asked the same question, from quite a different perspective; one I am very curious and excited to explore.