Three Sisters Soup

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I recently discovered the “three sisters” on a trip to Charlottesville. About two months ago, on one of many wedding-planning trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains, we stopped into Revolutionary Soup near the downtown mall. I had heard great things about Revolutionary Soup and I had been meaning to try it for years. On a gorgeous September day in Charlottesville with my parents and Kyle, I finally had the opportunity.

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Revolutionary Soup has an extensive menu of sandwiches, soups, and salads. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options on the menu. There is also a great selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. I was impressed by the selection of local beers and ciders. Kyle had a matcha (green tea) flavored soda that he is still talking about, two months later. I think one of Kyle’s greatest regrets in life is not writing down the name of that soda.

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One thing that really impressed me at Revolutionary Soup was this giant diagram that illustrated all of their local vendors on a map of Virginia. This is definitely a feature of my fantasy restaurant now.

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I chose a tofu wrap and a small Three Sisters Soup, which was one of the seasonal specials they offered that day. I had never heard of “three sisters” before, but I learned that the term refers to the trio of squash, beans and corn. Native Americans grew the three crops together, using a technique called companion planting, because each one benefits from the other two. Not only are they a great combination in the garden, but they also taste wonderful together. The soup was a total knockout and I knew I would have to replicate it at home.

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While I was picking up a few things at the grocery store later that week, I saw a giant bin of fall and winter squash. I couldn’t resist taking home this Turks Turban squash. I had never seen a squash like this before, and although I knew nothing about how to prepare it or how it tasted, I decided this would be the squash for my Three Sisters soup. Cutting and seeding it was really difficult due to its odd shape.

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When peeled, chunked, and roasted, the Turks Turban squash is sweet, with a smooth, dense texture. It was fun to use just for the experience and for the look on the grocery store cashier’s face when the odd-shaped squash came gliding down the belt and to her scanner. When I looked up the Turks Turban, I was disappointed to find that it didn’t have great reviews for taste. I tried it anyway and thought it tasted like a cross between a butternut squash and a pumpkin. I thought it was great and had no complaints regarding taste. However, due to the weird shape, the peeling and seeding process was so labor intensive that it wasn’t really worth it. In the future, I think I’ll just use butternut squash instead.

Anyway, enough about the squash. This recipe is all about the soup. I have made three sisters soup three times now, with a different type of squash every time. It is delicious no matter what type of fall or winter squash you include. This soup is hearty enough to stand alone in a big bowl as a main dish, or you could serve a smaller portion with bread and a salad. It would be a nice starter to your Thanksgiving meal. A large pot of it simmered on a Sunday provides an alternative to chili for watching football, or plenty of lunches to reheat throughout the week.

Three Sisters Soup

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Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 2 cups cubed, roasted winter squash
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1- 15 oz. can pinto beans
  • 2 cups frozen corn kernels
  • 5 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion, pepper, celery and garlic until onion is translucent.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot and bring to a boil.
  4. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 45 minutes. Remove bay leaf before serving.
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Epazote

Dysphania ambrosioides

Epazote is an herb that I had never heard of until six months ago, when I received a jar of it for Christmas. Kyle expertly chose a wonderful gift for me last year, and he presented me with Penzeys Spices “Taste of Mexico” box on Christmas Eve.

This gift was perfect for a few reasons.

  1. Obviously I enjoy cooking and writing about it.
  2. For a few years I visited Mexico every January, and I miss those trips so much. Kyle brought a little piece of Mexico to me this year.
  3. I love to try new things, and this box was full of them.

We cook our own version of Mexican food a lot in this house, and I have really enjoyed trying out the new spices and herbs in this set. The most intriguing one to me was epazote because I had never heard of it before. Upon researching the herb, I discovered that after at least five annual trips to Mexico, I have probably eaten it dozens of times. It is most commonly cooked in black beans, which I eat a ton of when I am south of the border.

I have delayed writing this post for awhile because I wasn’t really sure how to handle this subject delicately. I sometimes fail at subtlety and instead approach sensitive topics like a literary wrecking ball. I have finally determined that the best way to say it is simply and boldly.

The most commonly reported benefit of epazote in the diet is the prevention of flatulence.

There, I said it. But there are other more intriguing properties too. The most interesting tidbit I found on epazote is that, in large quantities, it is poisonous to humans. In small quantities, it relieves abdominal discomfort. What I did not find was a specific quantity at which you go from relief of abdominal pain to calling the poison control hotline. It looks so non-threatening to the naked eye, however we were playing with fire when we pulled out the epazote.

Do not worry; this story does not end at the hospital. Kyle and I have both survived several dinners with epazote-seasoned black beans since cracking open this jar. I think the dried epazote smells like bay leaves, but it tastes totally different. The taste is really difficult to describe, as it is not like any other herb I have tasted. It is kind of sweet and earthy, with this one zesty note that I can’t put my finger on (similar to anise and tarragon). I am sure I did not do epazote any justice in that poor description. All I know is that taco night in our house is even better since epazote came into our lives.

A few more facts for you ingredient geeks like me:

  • epazote is derived from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, like avocado, chocolate, chile, and coyote
  • it contains a carminative agent, meaning it reduces gas
  • it has been added to pet food because it is said to expel intestinal worms in our furry friends
  • some people have found it helpful in the treatment of asthma, malaria, and other diseases (however you should check with your MD first before incorporating this or any diet change into your treatment plan)
  • epazote can be used in beans, soups, chili, tacos, quesadillas and salads (and more!)

We did not conduct an experiment in our house to test the carminative properties of this common Mexican herb. Mainly because I come from a bit of a science background, I felt that I would quickly be in over my head if I tried to design and perform any type of scientific experiment measuring diet and flatulence. I have a feeling we would develop a new hypothesis that epazote either promotes or hinders the optimization of upstairs living space, as one of us would certainly get a lot of use out of the guest bedroom during that study.

So I have to ask: has anyone else tried epazote? What did you think?

Epazote can be purchased from specialty herb and spice shops, and from most Latin markets or grocery stores.

Pumpkin Chili

The weather is getting cooler and football season has begun, which means it’s time to break out the chili pot. I celebrated the Ravens’ victory last week with a big bowl of slow simmered pumpkin chili. The addition of pumpkin, cinnamon and white hominy to this vegetarian chili added another dimension of flavor that I really enjoyed. The hint of spice and squash made this the perfect pairing to a Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale to toast to the win.

Regardless of which team you support, whether it be pro football, college football, English Premier League, or your kids’ soccer team, this chili is a crowd pleaser when it’s cold outside and you have cheering to do. Even if all you are cheering for is “more pumpkin!” I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Pumpkin Chili

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • large onion, diced
  • bell pepper (any color; I used orange), diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1- 15 oz can diced tomatoes with jalapenos (or chiles for a milder flavor)
  • 1- 15 oz can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1- 15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1- 15 oz can white hominy, drained
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1- 15 oz can pumpkin (plain, not pumpkin pie filling)
  • salt and pepper
  • hot sauce

Preparation:

  1. Heat oil in a large chili pot over medium high heat.
  2. Add onions and peppers and saute until onion is translucent and fragrant. Add minced garlic and cook, stirring, for 1-2 more minutes.
  3. Add chili powder and cumin, stir to coat and cook for 30 seconds while stirring.
  4. Add cinnamon, tomatoes, beans, hominy, tomato juice, and pumpkin. When it starts to simmer, turn heat down to low, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes. Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste.
  5. Serve with toppings: sour cream, cheese, cilantro, green onions and tortilla chips are all great options.

I served mine with pumpkin ale and cornbread muffins.

Every time I have this meal, the song “Beans and Cornbread” starts playing in my head. Remember that theme song from Dinner and Movie on TBS? Am I the only one who hears this song every time cornbread is near?