Once January rolls around, I’m on a mission to organize the food stored in the basement, empty out our deep freeze and create as many comfort foods from last year’s harvest as possible. This annual exercise has turned out some spectacular dishes—soups, stews and casseroles, as well as pies and breads. It is also an important ritual for me—an honoring of the continual cycle of eating local, in rhythm with the seasons and the stages of planting, tending, harvesting, preserving and enjoying that guide my kitchen all year.
We can learn a lot from the cycles of the seasons and the planning of gardens. Take for example the main ingredients in this hearty vegan riff on a traditional French classic, the cassoulet: squash, corn and beans, known to the Iroquois and Seneca as the Three Sisters, star in a comfy stovetop casserole that pays homage not only to my own French heritage but also to the wisdom and Earth-knowledge of the indigenous people of North America.
The Legend of the Three Sisters says that there were three sisters who lived in a field, very different from each other, yet thoroughly devoted to and equally dependent on one another, each sister giving and taking equally from the other two. Because of their cooperation, they created a perfect system, where each could grow to meet her own potential, healthy, safe and strong.
As with all legends, there is a foundation of truth and wisdom at its root (pun intended). The corn stalk sister creates a structure to support the bean sister as she grows; the bean sister sends valuable nitrogen into the soil, providing sustenance for her two other sisters; and the squash sister sends out multiple sticky vines that protect everyone from greedy critters and blanket the soil in a moisture-saving groundcover. This legend is one way of understanding regenerative agriculture, something we talk about a lot on the blog.
Regenerative agriculture is kin to organic farming, but not synonymous. It is a system of farming where plants and animals work together for the betterment of the whole, lessening any need for chemicals and extensive soil disruption. Remember, Blaine Bilyeau in Farm Like a Girl? Blaine’s heritage Berkshire hog farm was an example of regenerative agriculture. Unfortunately, Papa’s Pasture has ceased production, as Blaine has decided to explore new pastures, but her method of herding her Berkshire hogs from spot to spot around the farm, allowing the hogs to root out invasive plants and leave their trampled waste behind created the system for other plants to grow and thrive—for instance original prairie and pollinator fields.
Jackie Mills, owner of The Family Garden, is another great example of a regenerative farmer. Every animal and plant on her farm contributes to the growth, health and wealth of everything else on the farm.
This idea of a self-supporting system that sustains both the land and a healthy human diet goes back farther than we have time to consider here—The Legend of the Three Sisters was around long before a pilgrim set foot on the Americas. So I invite you to read about the Legend of the Three Sisters, learn about the Iroquois white Corn Project—a mission to save the heirloom white corn seed, which is a major part of their heritage and an important part of Indigenous People’s diet–and even support the Project, if you so choose. But for now, let’s get cooking and celebrate those three sisters properly… in a pot…with a slight French accent!
My version of this Three Sisters-inspired cassoulet uses fresh butternut squash, dried pinto beans, the last of my fall shallots and the last bag of frozen corn kernels from July 2020. But if you don’t have all my ingredients, no worries. You can use some substitutes to create your own version. For instance, you can substitute the four cups of chopped butternut for cubed pumpkin that has been par-roasted, peeled and cut into cubes. In fact, it’s likely the Iroquois used a different version of squash entirely. But legends have a way of circling around like the seasons, shifting as needed for each new cycle and each new cook, too. Onions work just as well as shallots and frozen bell pepper could replace the corn. I also think that, had I had some in the fridge, fresh fennel and fennel fronds would have been lovely. I made do with an exquisite fennel powder, which was just fine.
The main difference between using butternut over pre-roasted pumpkin will be the addition of extra liquid. Pumpkin creates a lot of liquid as it cooks down; not so with butternut squash. So if you go with the pumpkin (which will also create a bit of extra work), make a note that it gets syrupy and rich and that, in turn, enhances flavor, so a different taste—just as good, but just different. Be brave. You can see my method for pre-roasting pumpkin wedges in my previous blog post: Pistachio-Encrusted Pumpkin Wedges. But for now…..
- One cup dry pinto beans, sorted, soaked overnight and rinsed well
- Four cups vegetable stock, your own or commercial (Note that if you are not vegetarian, you can use chicken stock, though I think this might give you a stronger flavor than you desire.)
- Fresh Herb Sachet: One bay leaf (fresh, if possible), two sprigs fresh rosemary, two sprigs fresh marjoram, tied together with a string
- One-quarter cup olive oil, or even a bit more so be generous
- One cup chopped shallots or onions
- Four large cloves garlic, chopped
- Six cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
- One cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
- One heaping tablespoon unsulfured blackstrap molasses (Be sure to get good quality and be generous—this is a key ingredient. Consider Wholesome Organic Molasses.)
- One teaspoon fennel powder (Penzeys has a nice fennel powder, as well as great tri-color pepper.)
- One teaspoon tri-color peppercorns, crushed
- One tablespoon miso paste
- Two tablespoons chopped dried seaweed (I used Duse, which has a nice smokey flavor.)
- The zest and juice of one small lemon
- Coarse sea salt to taste
- Begin with the preparation of the beans about an hour before you start cooking the vegetables. Place the beans, vegetable stock and herb sachet in a large Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, reduce to low heat and cook very slow and low for about an hour and a half. You want them barely simmering as they take on flavor. Partially cover the pot to maintain the level of liquid.
- While the beans get started, you can prepare your vegetables. At about an hour, start cooking the vegetables.
- Heat the olive oil in a large chef’s skillet with a well-fitted lid. Once the oil shimmers, add the shallots and a good pinch of salt. Stir and put the heat at medium so the shallots begin to sweat and glisten. Stir frequently to keep them from getting too brown too fast, about 10 minutes.
- Add the squash cubes and another good pinch of salt. Stir well and cover. Cook the onions and squash about 20 minutes, lifting the lid to stir a couple of times.
- Once the squash has started to get tender, add the corn and the garlic. Stir and cook about five minutes. Once everything has started to come together and the squash has softened even more, create a well in the center of your skillet and add the molasses, fennel powder and crushed pepper. Once you smell the molasses begin to cook, stir well so that all ingredients are combined.
- At this point, your beans should have been cooking for about an hour and a half. They should be tender but not mushy. Working with one ladle-full at a time, add beans and broth to the skillet, stirring up any stuck bits from the bottom as you go. This process of ladling beans and broth should take about 20 minutes or so. Also, be sure you reserve one-quarter cup of the bean broth to create your own "flavor packet".
- Now that everything is in the skillet, just let it continue to cook at a low simmer as you make the "flavor packet": To the reserved broth, add the tablespoon of miso, the seaweed, lemon zest and juice. Whisk to smooth out. This little concoction will create a burst of flavor that is smoky and rich and will help add a depth to this vegan version that might otherwise be missing because there is no meat. Stir into the skillet and then remove the skillet from heat. You're ready to serve!
Note that the times listed for prep and cook assume you are preparing the vegetables while the beans begin cooking. This dish is very nice served over a hearty grain or with homemade sourdough bread.
Classic French Cassoulet–or how my Granny might have done things
So just how different is this from the rustic French classic? Well, in some ways very different, but in theory, not much. A classic French cassoulet consists of white beans that are cooked with meat. You see, the French farm wife makes her cassoulet from leftovers—the meat from the week’s cooking, especially game such as duck and rabbit. To this she adds the beans, and any vegetables and stock on hand. Covered, it cooks slowly all day to enhance all the flavors and marry them together. Frugal, green and delicious cooking. Exactly what we have been after here….so if you have leftover meat, white beans instead of pinto and a frozen chicken stock—GO FOR IT! Or just create your own cassoulet with what’s on hand. Be brave! And let us know how it turns out.
It is pretty clear now that a plant-based diet, even it it does include local meat from regenerative ag farms, is going to help us fight climate change. So if one of your 2021 personal promises is to make yourself and the planet healhier, adding more vegan and vegetarian dishes into your diet is a great start. Be sure to check out some Green Gal Favorites like Vegan Chili with Quinoa, French Country Lentil Soup and Winter Wheat Berry Bake.