Dinner with the Littlebirds
Santa Fe, N.M. — LONG strings of red chilies hanging in the sun to dry, gourds, garlic, corn, and beans - these are the foods you find at the Native American pueblos in New Mexico today. And they are the same foods used here long, long ago. Today's Southwestern cooking reflects a heritage of Mexican and Spanish cuisine, as well as the culinary legacy of a far older Native-American culture. American Indians have given us dishes that are classics in their use of simply prepared fresh ingredients. Such food is varied, indispensable - and uniquely American.
Barbara Littlebird is a master of its preparation. This mother of two vigorous but typically choosy youngsters has found ways to combine traditional dishes with newer methods that suit the needs of her family. Her husband, Harold, is a Native American poet and singer, recently awarded an artist-in-residence grant at the School of American Research in Santa Fe. He's also a potter.
The merging of Indian and Spanish foods over several centuries created a flavorful, often sharply spiced cuisine. The Littlebirds enjoy the corn and bean dishes, the posole (hominy, often cooked with meat and seasonings), tamales, and salsas.
``I make our food lighter, using lots of fresh vegetables, adding texture and fiber. We like to steam or grill meat and poultry and we cut down on the chilies for the children,'' says Barbara.
``In our family we try to avoid the rushed eating habits that we see around us, and I look for all the ways to make our meals a pleasant time. Our four-year-old, Mateo, says the grace before meals, and if he sometimes decides to give thanks for the apricots on the tree in the front yard we don't mind that he doesn't bless the food we are actually about to eat.''
As Mateo comes bursting into the room on return from kindergarten, his mother quietly moves some of the handsome stoneware dishes away from the edge of a long table spread with food. Some of the solidly made serving dishes are Harold Littlebird's handiwork.
Mateo's older sister, 10-year-old Maya, takes her brother's exuberant homecoming calmly.
``In cooking native foods I can use fresh foods in season, and I avoid fried foods and the use of lard, although it's traditional for many native American dishes, like tamales,'' says Barbara. ``Since the children are young, their palates aren't as accepting of to hot spicy foods as they may be later.''
``Actually, Mateo seems to like chilies in foods more so than Maya,'' adds Harold, ``but Barbara seems to work around this well.''
Today the Littlebirds are serving a special dinner of Native American dishes adapted for the family's particular tastes.
``Since this is a company meal, we're having appetizers,'' announces Barbara. The long table includes tiny pastry puffs split and filled with a cream cheese mixture, tiny zucchini pancakes, and for dipping, plain crisp tostadas cut into chip size.
There's a large bowl of salsa, the basic table sauce typical of all New Mexican dining, at home or in restaurants. Tortilla chips are dipped into it before the main dishes appear. Spoonfuls are used on foods that need extra flavor.
``Our favorite salsa recipe is from our friend, Eduardo La Vaddie, although his recipe calls for seven jalapeno peppers! I've used four, and I think that's hot enough,'' Barbara says.
The salsa is superb, the best this writer has had. Young Mateo dips into it with frequency - an indicator, perhaps, of its hotness, or lack of it.
``We're having posole served with several garnishes at the table,'' Barbara says. ``I cook the posole separately instead of with any seasonings or meat. In this way I eliminate the chili which can be added to taste at the table, along with the other condiments,'' she said.
``Harold sometimes makes it another way, cooking the posole with pig's feet and blue corn and chili and seasonings. It's wonderful and everyone likes it,'' she says.
The children like the idea of posole with ``things to sprinkle on.'' They help themselves to shredded lettuce, shredded turkey, sliced radish, oregano. There's also a small dish of chili powder and wedges of lime.
Posole is made from white corn that's been treated with lime. It can be served alone as a starchy vegetable, as well as with garnishes, as in this version. ``It needs hours of cooking, but you can buy it fresh-frozen and canned. Just be sure it's posole, not hominy,'' Barbara cautions. Hers is cooked about five hours in a crock pot.
``Pressure cookers and crock pots are proven labor savers for beans, stews, meats, and poultry. This kind of cooking can be labor intensive,'' she says.
Barbara plans the kitchen work so that a certain amount of handmade authenticity is achieved without time-consuming physical work.
``Making your own sauce may be far more important to you than stamping out your own tortillas, and you can buy ready-made tortillas and other ingredients,'' she says. ``Canned chicken and beef broth save time. When it comes to dried beans - the pintos, kidney beans, and garbanzos - a good cooker can save four or five hours or more.''
Turkey is cooked separately and then shredded for the posole. Barbara had made tamales, too, and there's no way to escape the several steps involved in that - soaking corn husks, mixing a filling, putting it all together, and steaming. They were excellent but spicy hot, with a filling of masa harina and blue corn meal, turkey, garlic, coriander, oregano, black olives, and chilies.
A highlight of the dinner is the adobe bread, made by Harold's mother, Andrea Sarracino Bird, who lives at Paguate, one of the villages at Laguna Pueblo. These round, finely textured loaves are baked in a hand-shaped adobe oven, or horno. Traditionally, the bread of the pueblos is white, but Mrs. Bird uses whole wheat. The excellent flavor and good crust of her bread are prized by family and friends.
Wood is burned on the floor of the horno, then the embers are swept out and the bread slipped inside. It cooks as the heat slowly decreases. Once it's done, in go whole pumpkins or fresh corn, which has a wonderful roasted flavor cooked this way, Barbara says.
Squash and corn began as Indian foods, but Hispanic cooks who migrated to the American Southwest learned to make a version of calabacitas, using them both. Sometimes the squash is browned with onions, especially if the green squash had been dried and stored for winter. Adding green chili is authentically New Mexican. Some recipes add cream and cheese. Barbara's version is light and summery, without chilies, and, as with most of the dishes served tonight, it's especially suited to a family with children.
Dessert arrives after all this - rice pudding with dried fruit and fresh strawberries and a pleasant tea called cota, also made by Barbara's mother-in-law.
Commenting on the evening's repast, Harold observes that ``tamales and posole are real old Aztec foods. And corn is the principal Pueblo food. I remember the wonderful aroma of corn being ground in the village. All the women would be grinding.''
As he describes those scenes of pueblo life, Harold's insights as a singer and poet, drawing on his deep cultural roots in this region, shine through. ``They remind us that the Creator of All has prepared the corn in one stage and now we prepare it in different ways. The grinding song tells the story of our being grateful and explains that the cycle is never broken.'' Eduardo's Salsa 10 very ripe tomatoes 5 cloves garlic, peeled 1/4 large purple onion, peeled 3 medium jalapenos, seeded, chopped 1 cup fresh cilantro 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons vinegar Salt, optional, to taste
Slice tomatoes in food processor, then chop into cubes. Set aside. Blend in a food processor the garlic, onion, jalapenos, and cilantro. Combine and mix all ingredients and allow to blend an hour or so before serving.
Makes 1 quart, or serves 6 to 8 for dipping or as a table sauce.
Squash Casserole (Calabacitas) 2 onions, peeled, chopped 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 medium zucchini, sliced 4 cups corn kernels cut from 4 or 5 ears 1/2 cup frozen chilies 1 cup chicken broth Salt and pepper to taste
Saut'e onion in oil about 1 minute; add zucchini and cook, stirring another minute. Combine all ingredients in casserole. Bake 350 degree F. oven about 1 hour.
Zucchini Pancakes 2 cups grated zucchini 1 egg 1/2 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Combine grated zucchini with remaining ingredients in bowl and mix well. Drop by tablespoons on hot, well-greased skillet and cook about 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Serve with salsa.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.