Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Kitchen is a Kitchen, Really?

You want to feature Native American food. What kind of a kitchen should you have? I bet just any good commercial kitchen will do the job. But? Well what if you wanted to really create a cuisine that had a Native flare most diners could recognize and relate to. We frowned at the piki stone stove greased with brains and wrinkled up our collective nose at dishes of frozen whale meat served with lard ice cream.

Grilled and smoked meats, stews right off a campfire. Fresh oven adobe bread smelling of mesquite, pit roasted corn and of course what would any right minded Native restaurant do with out frybread?  Now that's what we wanted to feature, but how? Campfires?  Pits?  Health codes?


First the Building, a 1914 stone structure sitting on a old highway just off a interstate in a oak forest of rural San Diego, California. It had first been a residence then later converted into a restaurant with a bar and three dining rooms. It was rustic with high vaulting wood beamed ceilings and a large fireplace to greet guests. Perfect for a destination restaurant. Even with three Native reservations within ten miles. The kitchen was small but with a long hot line and front steam and cold line and back prep area, adequate. We did fall in love with the building.


Now back to that pesky kitchen we wanted. Those campfires? Well being a chef that spent twenty years in Asia what came to mind was, of course a wok. We took out the grill and replaced it with a three-burner wok. Those chefs who have used woks know that there are three ring gas burners that are separately regulated to serve heat where and how much you want to the wok pan. We placed heavy-duty grills over the wok pans. These are the same circular grills you find in camp sites that have a center screwed post to raise and lower them to the fire pit. With this arrangement we could deliver low to super instant heat to the grill without gas flames coming near the product. We then could add wood smoke pellets to the bottom of the pan to accurately add wood flavor to the items being grilled or smoked. To smoke we placed a wok lid over the grill/wok. Having three woks allowed us to produce three entrees at a time with three different wood flavors. Changing the wood was as simple as sweeping the wok pan and adding a new type of wood pellet or chip. The only downside to this was we had to replace wok pans about every month as the high heat burned holes in the bottoms. We sold these as flower planters.

Adobe oven bread was another challenge. The adobe oven (hornos) is built or lined with adobe and fired with mesquite, which produces a distinct hard-crusted soft interior bread with the aroma of mesquite. Outside hornos would not meet health code so we modified a wood fired pizza oven with adobe bricks, just what the health department and we wanted.


That fry bread. Trying to cook fry bread in a commercial deep fryer is a pain. They are to narrow for the job. We used a wok as a fryer but it was hard to control temperature, clean and it decreased or grill area. The answer was a slightly modified donut cooker.


Piki bread and that stone? Well piki bread is great and since it is really a Native crepe why not just use a crepe pan? We did.

The pit corn with husk was cooked in an alto sham and finished off on the grill to give it the scorched husk flavor.

Of course salsa was made by the gallons with our trusty Hobart food chopper.

For you Italian chefs, we used a salamander to cook a Native pizza on a frybread crust.

Monday, November 07, 2011


This catered event in November 1621 could have included: corn soup, succotash, white fish, venison, turkey, amimi (pigeon), duck, berries (including whole cranberries), maple sugar candies, corn starch candy, watercress, ramps, beans, squash, corn bread, corn and pumpkin.
November was a religious obligation in England for many years before coming to the New World. On the other hand, Algonkian tribes held six thanksgiving festivals during the year. The beginning of the Algonkian year was marked by the Maple Dance, which gave thanks for the maple tree and its syrup. This ceremony occurred when the weather was warm enough for the sap to run in the maple trees, sometimes as early as February. Second was the planting feast, where the seeds were blessed. The strawberry festival was next, celebrating the first fruits of the season. Summer brought the green corn festival to give thanks for the ripening corn. In late fall, the harvest festival gave thanks for the food they had grown. Mid-winter was the last ceremony of the old year.
When the Indians sat down to the "first Thanksgiving" with the Pilgrims, it was really the fifth thanksgiving of the year for them! Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate families to join them for a celebration, but they had no idea how big Indian families could be. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims were overwhelmed at the large turnout of ninety relatives that Squanto and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims were not prepared to feed a gathering of people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit gave orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get more food. Thus it happened that the Indians supplied the majority of the food: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and berries.
Three hundred and ninty years later this first event is celebrated throughout our nation in homes and restaurants. Refined somewhat but still with the turkey as its center, cranberry and pumpkin happily alongside.
From this first food encounter has developed an abundance of American Indian ingredients to enhance our culinary world. New cuisines including Southwestern, Mexican and those of South America have spread throughout the world. The largest culinary growth trend is predicted to be from the Native lands of Central and South America.
Native American Cuisine is slowly peeking its head above the dining room table. It has been presented at the Beard House and a cruise line  feature it. The Crystal Cruises Wine & Food Festival Cruise Jan. 12, 2007 to South America. The Miami to Valparaiso (Crystal Serenity) featured Chef Loretta Barrett Oden, Native American chef and food historian and host of PBS series Seasoned With Spirit. Titled a "Native Cook's Journey" (first series focusing on Native American food).
There are a number of restaurants that serve or feature Native American food. As chefs learn more of the exciting possibilities of this and its fusion potential, menus may go Native. We do have to get past the historical pemmican syndrome.
Native Recipes
Native American Restaurants