The most important and widely used foods we know today are of Native American origin, and almost 75 percent of the present food plants were new to Europeans five hundred years ago. There are squash, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, beans, pumpkins, potatoes (both white and sweet), chocolate, vanilla, sunflowers, corn, and many others.
American Indians were never a unit, and they were scattered in hundreds of tribes with hundreds of cultures and customs. It is these tribal variations that have given a wondrously wide variety of dishes to the diet. The cultural differences determined how these various peoples lived, what they ate, and how they cooked.
Native harvests reflect the usage of wild and cultivated plants and the style of food preparation five hundred years ago in North America. Old recipes are salt-free because salt was not a used or natural food substance in the early American diet. Except for occasional use during coastal festivities and in a few inland areas.
Early Americans knew the unique properties of ashes mixed with their foods or water for various preparations. Ashes of distinctive woods such as cedar, juniper, hickory were definite flavorings.
Native American Food Recipes with Nuts and Seeds
Nut and seed butters and oils were the primary nutritive seasoning among most Native Americans: black walnuts, acorns, hickory nuts, and chestnuts. Nuts were pounded into meals and used in bread, soups, and for seasonings. Nuts were also grounded in a mortar with water to make nut milk.
Grind 1 cup or more shelled dried nuts into a paste, using stones, a mortar and pestle, or a blender. Many nut butters are sweet enough plain. But if you want, you can add 1 or 2 teaspoons of honey or maple syrup mixed in to taste. Keep it refrigerated. Nut butter is excellent on bread and cakes.
Beech trees and beechnuts were a vital part of the Iroquois diet. The inner bark was dried, ground, and used to make bread. The young beech leaves were also cooked as greens in the spring.
Beechnuts are best gathered in late October or November. Delicious raw or cooked beechnuts contain 50% oils and 20% proteins. Roasted beechnuts can be ground and used as a fine caffeine-free coffee. Beechnuts can also be made into flour.
Take 2 cups blended cornmeal and nut meal, three eggs, whipped until frothy, 1 cup beechnut butter, softened, 1 cup light corn syrup, ½ cup maple sugar, 1 cup dried beechnut meals.
Press blended cornmeal and nut meal evenly into a well-greased pie plate. Cream together the whipped eggs and beechnut butter, gradually adding the corn syrup and maple sugar. Turn into prepared pie shell and bake in a preheated 325 F oven for 35 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven and cover the top with the beechnut meats. Return the pie to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.
Acorns from the oaks were probably the most important and plentiful nut for most tribes, especially Algonquins. All acorns are edible, but some require preparation to make them palatable and safe. White oak acorns may be eaten raw. But before eating red oak acorns, it is first essential to leach out the bitter, constipating tannin that makes them toxic.
Maple Syrup was the Eastern Woodlands Indians' principal confection. Maple syrup is used to flavor cooked vegetables and fruits and to mellow the flavors of various native stews.
Sunflower, pumpkin, and squash seeds are used raw or roasted by many tribes as an excellent protein source. The roasted seeds and shells make an exciting coffee drink.
Sunflower seed cakes
Take 3 cups shelled sunflower seeds, fresh or dried, 3 cups water, six tablespoons fine cornmeal, two teaspoons maple syrup, ½ cup oil.
Simmer the seeds in the water in a heavy saucepan, covered, for 1 hour. Drain and grind.
Mix the cornmeal and syrup into the ground seeds, one tablespoonful at a time, to make a stiff dough. Shape into the firm, flat cakes, 3 inches in diameter.
Brown the cakes in hot oil in a heavy skillet on both sides. Drain on brown paper and serve hot.
Easy Native American Recipes
The Eastern Woodlands Indians were creative and accomplished cooks, and their recipes were easy and tasty. Succotash is one of the easiest Native American recipes. Take one onion, chopped, one green pepper, chopped, 1 cup water, 2 cups shelled lima beans, 2 cups yellow corn, 2 tbsp nut butter. Simmer all ingredients together in a large, covered kettle for 20 minutes. Serve hot. They usually sweetened the hearty mixture of boiled beans and corn with bear fat.
Baked sweet potatoes
Take six medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed and skins rubbed with nut oil and a few tablespoons of nut butter for this easy recipe. Bake the oiled potatoes for 1 hour in a preheated 400 F oven or the ashes of a fire. If you bake it in ashes, turn to prevent charring. Serve hot with nut butter.
Jerusalem Artichoke Soup
For this soup, take 1 pound scrubbed Jerusalem artichoke, 6 cups water, three scallions, sliced (including tops), two tablespoons dill seeds.
One tablespoon chopped fresh dill weed, three eggs, beaten lightly.
Boil the Jerusalem artichokes in the water in a covered saucepan for 25 minutes or until tender. Drain, reserve the liquid and slice them in half. Scoop the meat out of the skins and mash it until it makes a smooth puree.
Combine the puree, scallions, water, and seasonings, and simmer for 15 minutes.
Pour several spoons of hot soup into the beaten eggs, stirring well. Slowly add the egg mixture to the soup, stirring over low heat for one more minute, serve.
Yellow Squash Soup
Two medium yellow squash, cubed. 2 scallions or wild onions, sliced including tops, 1 tbsp honey, 1 tbsp sunflower seed oil, 1-quart water, 1 tbsp chopped fresh dill weed. Garnish sunflower or squash seeds.
Simmer the squash, scallions, honey, and oil in the water in a large covered pot for 30 minutes or until the squash is tender.
Cool slightly, mash to a smooth puree, and add the dill. Return to heat and simmer for another 5 minutes. Add more water to thin if desired. Serve hot with garnishes.
Native American Wild Rice Recipes
Native American wild rice recipes are trendy and accessible.
Cook wild rice with hazelnuts and blueberries for this old recipe. You need 2 cups wild rice, washed in cold water, 5 cups water, two wild onions, diced, 1 cup shelled dried hazelnuts, chopped, 1 cup dried blueberries.
Combine the rice, water, and onions in a large kettle, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for approximately 40 minutes, or until most of the water is absorbed. Add the hazelnuts and dried blueberries, mixing thoroughly.
Steam, covered, for an additional 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot.
Popped Wild Rice
Popped Wild Rice becomes a crunchy and delicious snack. Wild rice can be popped like popcorn, even if it doesn't get as big and fluffy or puffy as popcorn.
Preparing wild rice in this traditional manner highlights the rich nutty flavor usually associated with the grain. Ojibwe people often mix the popped rice with pure maple sugar and enjoy the blend of two natural foods.
Fried squash or pumpkin blossoms
For fried squash or pumpkin blossoms, take 1 cup milk, one egg, one tablespoon flour, one teaspoon ground dried sassafras leaves, three dozen male blossoms (these blossoms are larger, infertile blossoms without an ovary – the swelling at the base of the flower), picked just before they open, mashed, ½ cup oil. Garnish chopped fresh mint leaves or dill weed.
Blend the milk, egg, flour, and seasoning in a bowl with s fork. Beat the batter until smooth. Place the mashed blossoms in the batter, stir gently, and allow soaking for 10 minutes. Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet until hot. Fry the batter-coated flower, a few at a time, until golden, turning once. Drain on brown paper. Serve hot, garnished with mint or dill.
This game stew was a favorite among Powhatan, Cherokee, and Chickahominy tribes. The seasonal mixture of game or fowl was usually squirrel, rabbit, or turkey accompanied by corn, beans, and tomato.
Take one 5-pound capon or chicken, two dried bayberry leaves, three spring parsley, one stalk celery, two potatoes, cubed, two large onions, cubed, 2 cups corn kernels, 2 cups shelled lima beans, ten dried juniper berries, ½ teaspoon dried oregano, two cloves wild garlic, three ripe tomatoes, quartered, one tablespoon fresh basil.
Simmer the whole chicken, with water to cover, in a large covered kettle, with the bayberry leaves, parsley, and celery stalk, for 2 hours. When the meat seems tender, remove the chicken from the pot, cool slightly. Separate the meat from the bones and return the chicken to the broth.
Add all ingredients to the kettle, except tomatoes and basil. Simmer for 30 minutes, add tomatoes and basil and simmer for 10 minutes more.
Native American Fry Bread Recipe
Most Indian breads are relatively heavy, sturdy creations. The bread was usually cakes, made by mixing cornmeal with what was left in the bottom of the pot after nut oil was rendered and then frying this batter in hot fat or roasting it in hot coals.
Navajo Fry Bread
For Navajo fry bread, take 2 cups flour, one teaspoon coltsfoot ashes, ½ cup ground sunflower seeds, two teaspoons baking powder, two tablespoons oil.
Work the first four ingredients into a dough ball, kneading until the texture is smooth. Place in a covered bowl or crock for 2 hours.
Remove the dough and cut it into three portions. Roll them into circle shapes, about 8 inches round and ½ inch thick. Cut two large, deep parallel slits across the tops.
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and fry for 2 minutes on each side.
If you're looking for other Native American fry bread recipes, here is Ojibwa bread.
What to read:
Native harvests: recipes and botanicals of the American Indian by Kavasch, E. Barrie