Small, Good Things: One for the Ladies

Three Sisters Chili

Three Sisters Chili

In the wake of both harvest season and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, one can’t help but be grateful for our native agricultural and culinary heritage, and the Northeast Native American — in particular, the Iroquois — traditions.

The Iroquois were a matrilineal society, and their major crops (squash, beans and corn) were thought to be imbued with female energy and known collectively as the Three Sisters.

Mohawk women cultivated the three crops symbiotically: Beans were planted at the base of budding corn stalks and their vines climbed the growing stalks to catch the sun, while broad-leaved squash plants nestled in at the base to shade, cool and keep the roots moist, benefiting all.

Nutritionally, they are equally symbiotic with corn and squash providing complex carbohydrates, the beans providing excellent vegetable protein (especially in concert with the corn), and the beans and squash supplying healthy vitamins and minerals.

In the kitchen and on the tastebuds, they are equally welcomed as a trio, and with the cooler, and unseasonably wet weather upon us, I recently lit upon the idea of a Three Sisters Chili, meatless, but hearty and redolent of chiles — warm and comforting in the best way. I initially thought to use the last of the market corn, thickening the pot with a couple of tablespoons of masa harina (or yellow cornmeal) at the end, which is traditional, at least in my house, for chili. 

And then … I remembered another singular corn product that has a great many uses and is well worth seeking out and exploring for your winter larder and table: John Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn. Founded well over a century ago in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Cope’s uses supersweet varieties such as Silver Queen, Silver King and Natalie that are harvested in the early stages, stripped and air-dried at a low temperature for about eight hours. That preserves their color and nutrients, intensifying a sweet, nutty, caramelized and corny flavor.

A final step — cracking the corn into smaller bits — makes for a unique texture and quick cooking time. It also adds a slightly chunky texture that is much welcomed in this surprisingly hearty chili. I have yet to find an acceptable substitute.

I would say Cope’s is hard to find, but in this day of internet commerce, the dreaded Amazon is a reliable source, as is Zingerman’s, or even a couple of Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch suppliers also now online. But you have to love a shelf-stable product that lists only one ingredient on the label: dried sweet corn.

I like to add it to a pot of polenta when cooking Italian braises, for an extra corn kick, or for elevating Charleston/New Orleans shrimp-and-grits, and it’s great for amplifying corn puddings, custards or cornbread for holiday or everyday feasts.

For the chili shown here, I confess to the addition of a cup or so of fresh tomatillos gifted to me from a friend’s garden, making it perhaps a Four Sisters Chili, but one hard-to-source ingredient per recipe is only fair. The sisters won’t mind, I’m sure.

Three Sisters Chili

Serves 6 to 8

  • Olive or peanut oil
  • 1½ cups butternut squash cut into a ½- to ¾-inch dice
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 4 teaspoons chile powder
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground ancho chilies
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 4 to 5 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 quart vegetable stock
  • 1 cup John Cope’s Dried Sweet Corn
  • 2 cups cooked chili beans (black, pinto, cranberry) and reserved cooking liquid
  • 2 tablespoons masa harina or yellow cornmeal

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees with the rack in the upper position. In a large bowl, toss the squash cubes in 2 tablespoons oil and dust evenly with 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon chile powder and the sugar. Spread evenly in one layer on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Sprinkle a little salt and grinds of black pepper over all and roast for 25 to 30 minutes. (Remove from oven and reserve when done.)

2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large (2 quart) saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When oil shimmers add onion and sauté until it just begins to color. Add garlic and cook 30 to 45 seconds. Add remainder of cumin and chile powder, the oregano, plus powdered chipotle and ancho peppers and cook for a minute or two. Add the vegetable stock and lower heat to a simmer. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes and add the Cope’s dried corn. Let simmer for about 30 minutes.

3. Add the beans and reserved squash and bring back to a simmer for 20 minutes. If it’s too thick add some of the reserved bean-cooking liquid or more stock or water. Five minutes before serving, stir in the masa harina or cornmeal and stir to thicken.

4. Serve over rice or some other grain (wild rice or a wild rice blend would be nice) and garnish with the usual chili accompaniments: sour cream or cheese, scallions, cilantro or avocados.

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