“Grown together since the dawn of agriculture in Mesoamerican gardens, these ancient ones were considered by the Iroquois to form a three-in-one goddess, growing together to nourish body, mind and spirit.”
Wendy Johnson’s Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World
With harvest season upon us, I’ve been cooking with as many summer staples as I can carry home from the farmers market each week before they disappear. Among my favorites are the storied three sisters: sweet corn, beans of all sizes, and succulent summer squash. The three summer sisters acquired their familial title from the Haudenosaunee (or members of the Iroquois confederacy) due to their fruitful collaboration in the field and at the hearth. First peoples of the Americas discovered and nurtured the mutually beneficial exchange between these plants at least 5,000 years ago and grew them together as a polyculture, or a group of different crops cultivated simultaneously.
Within this poly-culture, each component provides essential support to the other sisters: Corn provides structure for spindly bean tendrils. Bacteria on bean roots “feed” precious nitrogen harvested from the atmosphere to hungry corn. In addition, sheltering squash acts as a living mulch that seals soil in moisture and keeps out pesky weeds. Recent research reveals that this trio is more productive when cropped together than when cultivated alone as monocrops, in part due to the harmonious manner in which their roots colonize and comb the soil in search of food.
When brought together on the dinner plate, these plants provide a delicious array of complementary micro and macronutrients. Corn has ample sulphur-containing amino acids, but is deficient in lysine and tryptophan. Beans have the opposite amino acid profile. United in a meal, the two provide all of the nine amino acids not produced by the human body and create a powerful, veggie-based dose of protein. Squash is generally high in vitamin A, and oils from seeds (think pepitas!) enhance the absorption of the dietary protein in corn and bean-based cuisine.
Food is important not only for the nourishment and pleasure it provides, but also for the stories and teachings it holds that connect us to our past and to the living world around us. In spending time with rural families in Mexico who continue to cultivate and experiment with three sisters practices of farming and cooking, I’ve gleaned important lessons from this ingenious food system and it’s caretakers. This is why I made sure to cook a three sisters meal at Artemis village and want to share the recipes from that meal. These lessons, as well as recipes for a Gaia Girls three sisters feast, are below:
Plant a “teaming” ecosystem, Eat a rainbow
Diversified diets and farming systems nourish the land and the body. Filling our gardens and plates with a wide array of plants, as well as supporting farmers and chefs who do this work on a larger scale, are acts of care that extend across species.
Allowing ourselves to receive and give help strengthens and enriches us
In life and especially in the kitchen, we burn out and get burned (literally) if we don’t allow our sisters to carry some of our burden. Lately I’ve turned to several wonderful women in the Gaia Girls community to help get my catering business off the ground and reignite my creative fire. Bow drill master Auntie Jenya and I are working together to create food events for women (think long table dinners + workshops with makers, artists, etc.). Gaia Mama and coach Lisa has gleefully held my hand as I leapt off the rocks of one journey and into the uncharted sea of another. Stephanie, an Artemis village kitchen helper and Dharma ridge resident, is coming over to revamp my garden this week. This is a sizeable project that I couldn’t cross off the to-do list without some moral support.
Keep your sisters close
Womenfolk are the weavers of social networks. We do the underground root work from which communities flourish. Many of the Maya women I met last year doing research in Quintana Roo grow beautiful home gardens full of food and flowers. When I asked these women how they amassed such lush collections of native and exotic flora, they often told me that they were gifted plants from other lady gardeners. Orchids from a visiting sister in-law clung to trees shading potted cuttings from a neighbor renowned for her magnificent dahlias. Giving and exchange, making time and staying in touch keeps friendship, kinship and gardens growing.
Corn: For my Coconut Lavender Cornbread, I use the Tassajara Cookbook’s cornbread recipe. I add lavender from my garden (a light sprinkling of buds in the mixture and on top of the loaf before baking). I also substitute coconut milk and oil for their dairy-based equivalents. For a gluten free batch, I use my own blend of coconut, brown rice and quinoa flour with a little tapioca starch. Visit http://minimalistbaker.com/diy-gluten-free-flour-blend/ to learn about making your own GF baking mix.
½ cups coarse cornmeal
1 ½ cups white flour
4 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 cup milk
3 eggs beaten
1/3 cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 375 °. Mix all dry ingredients in one bowl. Combine milk, eggs and butter in a large bowl. Fold together the wets and the dries, mixing just enough to combine, leaving perhaps even a few dry places. Overmixing will make the corn bread tough. Scrape batter into a greased 9 by 13 inch baking pan. Bake for 25-35 minutes until the middle rises and the top is cracking here and there. Let cool briefly and then cut into squares
From “ The Complete Tassajara Cookbook: Recipes, Techniques and Reflections from the Famed Zen Kitchen” by Edward Espe Brown
Beans: My friendsister Heather, a pastry chef, introduced me to one of her favorite dishes from childhood: Moosewood’s Brazilian Black Bean soup. I’ve been serving it to kids ever since and it’s always a hit. At camp I added a pinch of native black sage (Salvia clevelandii) to the Artemis Village pot. I’d also suggest a California bay laurel leaf for flavor.
Brazilian Black Bean Soup
2 cups dried black beans, soaked (to soak the beans, follow the instructions that are usually found on the package. Most dried beans should be soaked in water for at least 4 hours, or, preferably, overnight.)
4 cups water
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
10 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin
2 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 medium carrots, diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 and 1/2 cups orange juice
Cayenne pepper, to taste
2 medium tomatoes, diced
Toppings: Avocado, Greek yogurt, cheese, etc.
- Place the soaked beans in a large saucepot or Dutch oven with the 4 cups of water.
- Bring the beans to a boil, cover, and simmer until tender (about 1 hour or so.)
- Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat until shimmering.
- Add the onion, half of the garlic, cumin, salt, and carrot, stirring frequently until the carrot is tender, about 5-7 minutes or so.
- Add the remaining garlic and the bell pepper, stirring occasionally for another 10-15 minutes or so.
Squash: I didn’t make this exact dressing at camp but I love it and I know you will too! My mom introduced me to it in a delicious Mexican-style caesar salad. If mayonnaise is a turn off, try making your own. It’s nutrient dense and delicious with eggs (http://wellnessmama.com/1739/healthy-mayonnaise/) or without them (http://wellnessmama.com/23441/avocado-mayo/). Top your green salad with nasturtiums for extra magic.
Cilantro Pepita Dressing:
1 Anaheim Chile, Roasted, seeded, and chopped.
3 Tbs roasted pepitas
2 garlic cloves, peeled
3 Tbs Cotija Cheese, grated or 3 Tbs soaked (2+ hrs) cashews with a pinch of salt and a dash of lemon juice
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs lime juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1 Tbs red wine vinegar
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, no stems
2 Tbs mayo or avocado mashed with olive oil
1/4 cup water
Mix all ingredients except cilantro, mayonnaise, and 1/4 cup water, in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add cilantro in batches to blender until smooth. You may need to add 1 to 2 TBS of additional water during this process. In a separate bowl, whisk mayonnaise or mayo substitute and 1/4 cup water until smooth and completely blended. Slowly whisk in cilantro mix (everything from blender) until smooth.
This recipe is modified from http://dishingwithleslie.blogspot.com/2012/07/mexican-caesar-salad-with-cilantro.html
Article written by Gaia Girls chef Emily Beggs. Check out HERE for her catering page on Instagram.