By Traci Barr
Of all the recipes, why does this humble one matter to me so much? First recognized by the inherent wisdom of indigenous North Americans, the Three Sisters is a quintessential example of “companion planting” — a perfect agricultural (and nutritional!) synergy. Considered sacred, this symbiotic technique is represented on the reverse side of the very first Native American U.S. dollar coin.
As the Three Sisters story goes, beans are planted right next to corn, whose tall stalks create a natural trellis for the upward-climbing bean vines. In return, the bean plants capture nitrogen from the air and enrich the soil with it through their roots — replacing what the corn plants naturally take from the earth. The large, prickly, and low-to-the-ground leaves of squashes make for edible ground cover, keeping away weeds and insects, while simultaneously providing shade to the roots of the corn and beans. Even tenacious critters like hungry raccoons are vexed by the leaves of a squash plant! In turn, the corn grows taller, which helps the bean plants produce an even greater yield. And eventually, more people get fed at the dinner table — the best possible outcome.
But the real lesson?
We are all connected. Even when we are as different from each other as corn, beans, and squash. We can do so much more when we work together. Our lives are enriched when we intentionally engage with — or purposefully plant ourselves next to — people who experience the world in an entirely different way. There is no “us” or “them” unless we choose to label and think of ourselves as so. In this way, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts. Just like a really good stew!
Happy Thanksgiving. Shalom.
The Three Sisters Stew
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 large celery stalks, diced
2 bay leaves
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
4 cups cooked pinto beans (canned, drained, rinsed beans are fine)
1 quart vegetable stock (you might not need it all)
2 cups corn kernels (freshly cut from the cob is best, but frozen is fine, too)
½ cup rough chopped parsley, if desired, to garnish
Heat extra virgin olive oil in a large Dutch-oven style pot. Add diced onions, carrots and celery. Sauté over medium-high heat until vegetables have started to get tender and turn golden, about 10 minutes. Add bay leaves, minced garlic, kosher salt, black pepper and minced rosemary. Sauté until garlic is very fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add butternut squash chunks, pinto beans, and half the vegetable stock to the pot. Stir everything together. Add more stock at this point if you think it’s necessary—but remember that the squash will release a bit of liquid as it cooks. Reduce heat and simmer until the squash is tender, about 12 to 15 minutes (longer if chunks are bigger). Add stock, if necessary, to maintain stew-like consistency throughout cooking. Add corn to pot and cook for 2 minutes. Turn off heat and remove bay leaves from pot. Season with additional kosher salt and black pepper, if desired. Garnish with chopped parsley, if using.