On The Table: Three Sisters Quesadillas

Squash, corn, and beans are among the staples of indigenous agriculture in the Americas.  In some places the tradition of growing them all three together in a polyculture led to the trio being known as the three sisters.  We grew the three crops in separate portions of our garden this summer, but they all ended up together at the table this week in a single dish we now refer to as the three sisters quesadilla.  

This dinner stemmed from two inspirations:  a half-gallon of pre-cooked squash stored in the fridge and needing to be used up, and memories of black-bean and sweet potato burritos we've loved (sweet potatoes don't really grow here, so we haven't had those in a while). This is probably a good place to admit that this, like many meals we feature,  did not begin as a grand pre-planned vision.  It grew organically and unexpectedly out of what was on hand at the time. Sticking as much as possible to food you grow can force some creativity.  That creativity can lead to brilliant discoveries or, well, less than ideal combinations. Sometimes popcorn is dinner.       

For today, though, we'll stick with another success.  As usual I'll give you not so much a recipe as a set of directions.  And not the GPS or google-maps kind of directions, but "turn left at the red barn, swing right around the stump, and keep on going till the bottom of the hill" kind of directions.  Don't worry, you'll get close enough.  

Three Sisters Quesadillas:  

First, ideally a day or two ahead of time, bake far more squash than you can eat.  Scoop the leftover squash out of the rind, puree or mash it, and store it in the fridge trusting that you'll think of something.  

Next, start some black beans soaking the morning of your intended dinner.  Convince yourself there is some sort of burrito-like plan for them and trust that it will come together by evening. Before going out to feed the sheep, set the beans on the stove and simmer them for an hour or more (unless you, perhaps, have not blown the seal on your pressure cooker, in which case you can cook your beans much more quickly and feed the animals whenever is convenient).

About the time you start to get really hungry, decide the squash and the beans will go together quite well, and formulate a burrito plan (because there are still tortillas in the fridge, right?).  Sautee a chopped onion, a few red-ripe jalapenos or other good pepper, and a big handful of garlic cloves.  Add them to the simmering beans along with a little cumin, salt and pepper. Let all of them simmer till they are a good soft texture, adding more water as necessary.    

Pull out the bag of store-bought tortillas, and now.....choose your own adventure: are you lucky, and they are still good?  Great, proceed to the last paragraph and save yourself some serious kitchen chaos.  No, you see furry spots?  Sounds familiar. Feed those to the chickens and keep reading. You're going to need to make some tortillas from scratch. 

Montana cornflour tortillas (in no way traditional, but they worked): take two large handfuls of kernels rubbed off of the dry flint corn hanging in all corners of the house.  Run them through the grain attachment on the Champion juicer, and discover with great joy that they make a nice fine corn flour.  Mix your two large handfulls of corn flour with one handful of wheat flour (ok, sure, you can use cups if that works better for you). Add a half-teaspoon or so of salt and a generous slosh of oil (or a quarter cup, if you like).  Stir the oil in with a fork, then use your hands to rub it into the flour.  At this point the mix should seem dry still, but hold together a bit if you squeeze a handful.  Add just enough warm water to make a firm dough.  Roll and pat that out into shapes as close to circular as possible, and as thin as you can get without breaking.  Cook them on a flat hot skillet, flipping twice, till slightly browned on each side. Stack them up as they cook and keep covered with a cloth, so they stay warm and flexible.  

On each tortilla, spread a layer of the squash puree onto one half of the circle, and spoon a layer of black beans, then a layer of grated cheese.  Fold the other half of the tortilla over to enclose the filling, and cook on a griddle untill the cheese is melted and the tortillas match your desired level of toastiness.  Top with salsa, and perhaps the very last of the garden-grown red tomatoes.  Enjoy.

Plants We Love: Black Turtle Beans

I have one sharp memory of harvesting and winnowing dry beans as a young child in the family garden, perhaps becuse the process involved jumping and stomping on a truckbed full of dry pods on a chilly fall day. Most years, though, our family garden did not include dry beans, and this year was the first I've grown them myself. 

Once we decided to include dry beans in the garden, it took considerable restraint to limit ourselves to 4 or 5 varieties. Heirloom beans are one of those crops with a diversity of colors and patterns that draws me in to a point perhaps beyond reason; the flavor descriptions only furthered the obsession. I poured over the bean section of the seed catalog and found myself wanting to collect these varieties the way birders accumulate species on their life lists.  And yet, this was new to me, the first time I'd planted them in a garden of my own.  Most backyard growers I know don't bother with dry beans.  We've been missing out. 

A double handful of Black Turtle Beans, and two stray Jacob's Cattle Beans, straight from the garden.  

Dry beans are one of those crops that often cause people to ask "is that really worth growing yourself?"  It's a question worth asking.  Buying enough fresh basil to make our year's worth of pesto would be drastically expensive, so certain crops like that make clear economic sense.  Cooking beans, on the other hand, are already one of the most affordable foods available, especially in bulk.  If you credit any sort of value to your time, you probably aren't going to put away much savings by growing your own black beans.  But of course that isn't the only reason we plant. 

One of our goals this year has been to go beyond just vegetable-growing, to really think about and learn what it takes to feed ourselves completely, to grow the staple calorie and protein crops that provide the base of the diet.  When we think about the feasibility of feeding the world--filling the billions of bellies--these kinds of crops seem important to know and understand. 

This is a food you can raise yourself and easily eat throughout the year, without any special means of putting-up. No canning, freezing, or special dehydrating needed. Once they dry on the vine, it's actually quite quick to crush the pods and blow the peices off the top of the heavier beans.  Or you can sit around and shell them by hand if you happen to be having a long conversation with a neighbor who also isn't used to sitting with hands still. Now we have quart jars filled on the shelf for winter, and another box of dry pods that can just wait till we have time for it.  In the end, these were one of our easiest crops.  

They were remarkably simple to grow, essentially taking care of themselves after initial planting and a few passes of weeding and mulch.  By mid-summer they were a thick jungle of leaves well capable of holding out against any weeds--almost impossible to walk through, but that was fine since they didn't really need any attention again till fall, when we collected dry pods from the frost-killed vines. 

The beans pictured here, and appearing most frequently on our table lately, are the Black Turtle Beans, grown from seeds from the High Mowing catalog.  They are the most-mainstream of the bean varieties we grew, in part because black beans are our favorite bean for burritos, a frequent food on our table.  I was skeptical of whether there would be much taste difference between our home-grown and store-bought black beans.  It's not the level of difference that we notice between purchased and home-grown tomatoes, but it's there.  The beans cook more quickly (probably because they did not get an additional heated drying period on a warehouse after harvesting), and we think they do have a richer, deeper flavor. Though they'd be cheap to buy, growing them ourselves was well worth it.