Meet Chef Lois Ellen Frank, Ph.D. We had the pleasure of speaking with her about the history, health, and culture of food. Read on to enjoy her recipe for Three Sisters Stew.
Tell us about your work. Chef Walter Whitewater and I work at Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that specializes in revitalizing traditional Native American cuisine with a modern touch, using ingredients and preparing dishes focused on health and well-being. We have been working with indigenous communities in the Southwest United States for over 30 years. I was honored to receive the Local Hero Olla Award for my outstanding work in creating healthy, innovative, vibrant, and resilient local sustainable food systems in New Mexico. We also work with the New Mexico Health Department to train chefs working in indigenous communities and collaborate with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) on the „Power to Heal Diabetes: Food for Life in Indian Country“ program. More information can be found at www.nativepowerplate.org.
What are the Three Sisters and what importance do they hold for Native Americans? The Three Sisters are corn, beans, and squash, believed to be gifts from the Great Spirit by many tribes. The way these vegetables grow together in the garden illustrates the concept of interconnection, as do the nutrients they provide. These are three ingredients that Chef Walter and I regularly use, forming a basis for the healthy diet of Native Americans.
We recently learned about your „Magic Eight.“ Could you describe what the „Magic Eight“ foods are and their significance? The Magic Eight are corn, beans, squash, chili, tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla, and cocoa. These are eight foods that did not exist outside of the Americas before European contact in 1492. They are truly indigenous foods of Native Americans, passed on to the rest of the world and now woven into the identity of many cuisines. The Magic Eight are at the heart of our cookbook „From Seed to Plate, From Ground to Sky: Modern Plant-Based Recipes with Native American Ingredients,“ published by Hachette Book Group this summer.
What are your favorite whole food, plant-based, and oil-free meals? Yesterday, I made a Three Sisters Enchilada. I combined hearty, cooked pinto beans with zucchini and corn in a corn tortilla, topped with a red chili sauce, green onions, and sautéed squash and corn. It tasted delicious. Another favorite is a poblano chili stuffed with quinoa, mushrooms, and spinach, served with a traditional tomato sauce that I make every year to use during the winter months.
Can you tell us about your work with PCRM and its Native Food for Life program? We have worked a lot with PCRM and its Native Food for Life program over the years. Among the resources for Native Americans, you will find plant-based recipe booklets from Chef Walter and me, along with many videos, other information, and recipes for healthy foods that are easy to prepare.
What message do you have for the Native American population regarding reclaiming their health through heritage? I believe that all nations, ethnicities, and people need to reclaim our health and well-being. In Native American communities, there is a movement towards reintegration, recovery, and revival of traditional nutrition for health and well-being. This is a good thing because when you eat the Magic Eight and other regional foods of your own ancestors, you revitalize everything associated with these foods, including the land, food techniques, and agricultural practices, so that knowledge around them can grow and be passed on from generation to generation.
Three Sisters Stew Recipe (Serves 4-6)
Chef Walter and I originally prepared this recipe on the Navajo Reservation in Pinon, Arizona, where he grew up. It has been made for numerous family gatherings and ceremonies. For this version, I added zucchini instead of meat. The squash makes this stew hearty without being heavy. This recipe is great because it can feed four to six people, or you can scale it and make enough to feed 600 people.
– 1 tablespoon bean juice
– ½ large yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
– ½ green bell pepper, seeded and chopped (about ½ cup)
– 1 zucchini, diced (about 1½ cups)
– 2 teaspoons black garlic
– 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes, preferably with no added salt
– 1½ cups cooked dark red organic kidney beans (or one 15-ounce can)
– 1½ cups cooked organic pinto beans (or one 15-ounce can)
– 1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
– 1½ tablespoons mild New Mexico red chili powder
– 1 teaspoon medium New Mexico red chili powder (optional, for a slightly spicier stew)
– ¼ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
– ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
– ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
– 4 cups water or bean juice
1. Preheat a cast-iron soup pot or metal soup pot with a heavy bottom over medium to high heat. Add the bean juice and heat until hot.
2. Add the onions and sauté for about 3 minutes, stirring to prevent burning, until they become translucent.
3. Add the green pepper and sauté for an additional 3 minutes, stirring to avoid burning.
4. Add the zucchini and sauté for another 3 minutes, allowing the vegetables to caramelize and brown. The bottom of the pan may start to brown, but this is part of the caramelization process.
5. Add the garlic and cook for another minute while stirring to prevent burning and to mix it with the other ingredients.
6. Add the tomatoes. Let it cook for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
7. Add the kidney beans, pinto beans, corn, mild chili powder, medium chili powder (if you desire a spicier stew), black pepper, thyme, and oregano, and mix well.
8. Add the water, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
9. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
10. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
If available, fresh thyme and fresh oregano can be used. Simply double the amount from ¼ teaspoon to ½ teaspoon each. I typically buy herbs fresh when available, and any herb scraps from what I’m cooking, I dry on a sheet pan in my pantry and then store for future use.
Recipe excerpted from „From Seed to Plate, From Ground to Sky: Modern Plant-Based Recipes with Native American Ingredients“ by Lois Ellen Frank. Copyright © 2023. Available at Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Find Chef Lois Ellen Frank here.