We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, when, with the agricultural assistance of Squanto, a Pawtuxet Indian, and the foraging and hunting talents of the Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims enjoyed their first harvest feast in the New World.
What many of us do not realize is how extensive the culinary resources of the First Nations People were. Native Americans were well acquainted with New World ingredients such as corn, potatoes, sunchokes, filé powder and many bean and squash varieties. Many of today's favorite American dishes, such as succotash, popcorn and pecan pie, originated in Native American foodways. In fact, Native American cooking techniques and foodstuffs contribute to what we now consider American regional cuisines.
The indigenous people of northern Minnesota were the Chippewa, also called the Ojibwe. To this day, Native people honor the culinary traditions of their forefathers by sourcing some of what they eat using the age-old methods of hunting, fishing, foraging and cultivating. Two foodstuffs long enjoyed by our area's Native populations, and now strongly associated with regional Minnesota cuisine, are wild rice and maple syrup.
Sap from the sugarbush, the name used by the Chippewa for sugar maple trees, is the source of maple syrup. It was not the syrup that was most prized by the early Chippewa, but rather, the maple sugar.
According to Bruce Savage, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a maple syrup producer, "Maple sugar is a uniquely American product, and it was traded between tribes long before the Europeans arrived on this continent, making it one of the oldest forms of commerce in North America." Native people boiled maple sap down to its sugar form, which was easy to preserve. When liquid form was desired, it was easy to reconstitute the sugar with water.
In addition to making maple syrup products, Savage also harvests and processes native wild rice using traditional Chippewa methods. He says, "Wild rice, which we call 'manoomin', is not completely wild. Since it is an annual grass that we plant and harvest, I consider it a cultivated product. I suppose that makes us farmers."
The "farmed" wild rice is very different from commercially grown paddy rice most often thought of as wild rice. Hand harvested manoomin comes from the natural rice-growing stands of area lakes. It is lighter in color and has a nuttier flavor than the almost-black paddy rice, says Savage.
True wild rice is more expensive than the ubiquitous paddy rice, and for good reason: its natural growing habitat requires careful conservation, and hand-harvesting and hand-processing is laborious.
Wild rice and maple syrup products are staples in many larders, but usually show up on tables only for special occasions. Include native cuisine with everyday meals more often by incorporating local ingredients into your cooking regimen.
Maple-Lacquered Salmon Fillets
The sauce in this recipe is one of Bruce Savage's favorite ways to
enjoy the flavor of maple syrup, and it can also be brushed on grilled, broiled or baked salmon.
Yield: 4 servings
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skin-on, coho or sockeye salmon fillets
4 tbsp soy sauce
4 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp minced garlic
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Rinse the salmon fillets with cold water, blot dry with paper towels
and keep chilled until ready to cook.
Mix together the soy sauce, olive oil, maple syrup and garlic. Set
Season the salmon fillets with salt and pepper. Heat the vegetable
oil in a heavy non-stick pan that is just large enough to
accommodate the salmon. When the oil is hot, slip the fillets into
the pan, skin side down. Sauté over high heat for 4 to 6 minutes
- until the skin gets crispy. Turn the fillets over with a spatula and
cook the skinless side for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending
on the thickness of the fillet.
You want the fillets a bit underdone at this point. Remove the
fillets from the pan to a triple layer of paper towels. Pat the
fillets to remove excess oil. Pour the remaining oil out of the pan
and pour in the soy sauce-maple syrup mixture. Then, slip the
salmon fillets into the sauce, skinless side down. Turn the heat
down to medium and move the fillets around the pan for 30
seconds so they become well glazed with the sauce. Serve immediately
with the skinless side up. If there is any remaining
sauce left in the pan, drizzle it over the salmon.
Basic Wild Rice
Unlike commercially processed paddy-grown "wild rice," which is very dark in color and hard, hand-harvested wild rice is lighter in color. Real wild rice cooks quickly - in only 20 minutes - and it is light and fluffy.
Yield: 2 large servings
1 c hand-harvested Minnesota wild rice
3 c water, or chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper, to taste
Before cooking, rinse the rice by placing it in a strainer and running water over it to remove any fine dust left from the processing. Place rice in a 2-quart saucepan and cover with the water. Bring to a boil. Cover the pan and turn the heat down to a simmer. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat, keep covered, and let the rice steam for 5 to 10
minutes to finish cooking. Drain, if needed, and add salt and pepper to taste.