By: Lauren Hicks
I wanted to make foods that represented the flavors of Southwestern Native American cooking before contact with the Spanish. This meant recipes without butter, milk, or spices not native to the southwestern region of the US. Corn and beans are known to be a staple of the Southwestern Native American diet, and the recipes I chose (Zuni succotash and Navajo blue bread) are based on those staple items. Here are the recipes:
To make the bread, I needed juniper ash. So, I collected branches of juniper to ash for the Navajo blue bread. I used a Coleman outdoor grill powered by propane and a metal bowl covered in foil to collect the ashes.
At first I tried to burn the juniper branch and shake it into a bowl, but with trial and error, I figured out the best way to do it was to light a small fire in the bowl with some juniper twigs.
For the recipe, which I doubled, I put four tablespoons of juniper ash into two cups of boiling water and strained the ash water through cheesecloth into four cups of blue cornmeal. The preface to the recipe I used said the ash helped the blue cornmeal keep its color, but sources I found online, such as https://navajorecipes.com/corn/juniper-ash/, state that it is used to boost calcium content of the cornmeal. According to the website, blue cornmeal without ash has only 2.4mg of calcium per cup, while blue cornmeal with ash has 802 mg of calcium per cup. That’s a significant nutritional boost, and when you consider the fact that the Navajo did not have milk before Spanish contact, it could be seen as a way to manage a lack of calcium in their diet.
Once I had the blue cornmeal dough, I added some more water until it was an easily moldable consistency and made thin, 3 inch round circles of meal.
I molded each circle right before I placed them in the pan, as the dough was drying out quickly in the bowl and dried out even more if you made the circles ahead of time. I also added a small amount of salt and honey to the dough.
The recipe called for each piece of bread to be cooked ten minutes per side, but even at the lowest heat that was entirely too long. I judged whether they were done by a slight browning in color on either side, kind of like pancakes. As I would put two down in the pan, I would make two more and put those in, then flip the first ones and continue by making two more. This process gave me an even cooking time for all the cakes.
I dipped the finished cakes quickly in salt water when they were finished, and according to the recipe that is the traditional Navajo way to eat them. On a side note, they were also great with butter and dipped in stews or sauces.
For the Zuni succotash, I used pine nuts to make the pinyon nut or sunflower meal the recipe called for. I put the pine nuts in a plastic bag, then a paper bag over that, and pounded them into a meal with a mallet. I would recommend using a mortar and pestle (which we didn’t have), which is not only closer to the traditional way of making nut meal, it is also easier. The recipe did not specify how much nut meal was to be used, so I just used one bag of pine nuts.
While making the pine nut meal, I also soaked dried pinto beans for an hour and brought them to a boil. I would recommend soaking the beans overnight ahead of time, because the beans took longer than anything else to cook, and the texture of the beans probably would have been better.
In the pot with the beans, I cut the kernels off of four ears of yellow corn (substituted for Native American green corn), around 1 cup of ground beef (substituted for venison) and the pine nut meal. I boiled the Zuni succotash all together for about an hour, and added some salt to season it.
I had a fun time making these recipes and they turned out great. It was especially interesting to make the juniper ash, as I had never seen ash used in food before.