A Thanksgiving Menu That Goes Back To The Roots | KNKX

A Thanksgiving Menu That Goes Back To The Roots

Originally published on November 21, 2012 10:37 am

Everyone knows the schoolhouse version of the first Thanksgiving story: New England pilgrims came together with Native Americans to share a meal after the harvest. The original menu was something of a joint venture, but over the years, a lot of the traditional dishes have lost their native.

For those who want to create a feast that celebrates the flavors that Native Americans brought to the table, Chef Richard Hetzler has an entire menu of options from his award-winning cookbook, The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook.

The recipes are drawn from the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, where Hetzler is lead chef. Ever since opening the cafe, he has seen a growing interest in native cooking. He attributes it to Americans wanting to know more about their history, and to the health benefits of native foods. He tries to stay true to that tradition by keeping his recipes simple.

"There's not a lot of stuff put into them to change those flavors or manipulate what you're tasting," Hetzler tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. "You're getting the true healthiness of that dish." Hetzler also takes indigenous foods and ingredients from different regions throughout the Western Hemisphere, and adapt them to today's palate.

"If you think about the history of food," says Hetzler, "a lot of that dates back to Native Americans and what they were doing." Those methods include cooking dishes with ingredients that have a natural synergy. Hetzler's Three Sisters Salad uses corn, beans and squash that have been traditionally planted and grown together.

For hesitant home cooks, Hetzler isn't asking you to throw out grandma's recipes. "Branch out, try one thing," he says. "Nobody wants to change their whole meal. But you could incorporate one piece and start making traditions of your own, that carry down to your children or your family members, and keep going from there."

The following recipes are excerpted from The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook, by Richard Hetzler:

Three Sisters Salad

In Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) villages, as in many other Native communities, women planted, hoed, weeded, and harvested communally, often working in large groups. The staple crops they grew — corn, beans and squash — came to be known as The Three Sisters. Not only do the three foods grow well together (the beans climb the natural trellis provided by the cornstalks, while the broad-leaved squash plants spread out below, preventing weeds and keeping moisture in the soil), but when cooked together they provide nearly complete nutrition.

Here, grilled squash and corn are mixed with cranberry beans and yellow and red tomatoes.

Serves 4 to 6

Apple Cider Vinaigrette

6 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


2 zucchini, halved lengthwise and seeded
2 yellow summer squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
2 ears corn, husked
1/4 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups cooked cranberry beans, drained
1 medium yellow tomato or 3/4 cup yellow cherry tomatoes, diced
2 plum (Roma) tomatoes or 3/4 cup cherry tomatoes, diced

For the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients and whisk to blend. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 10 days.

For the salad: Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill, or preheat a gas grill to high. Brush the zucchini, squash, and corn with oil. Season the vegetables on all sides with salt and pepper. Grill the zucchini and squash until crisp-tender and grill-marked on both sides, about 10 minutes. At the same time, grill the corn until lightly browned, turning to cook all sides, 4 to 5 minutes.

Transfer the zucchini and squash to a cutting board and finely dice, then empty into a large bowl. Cut the kernels from the corn and add to the bowl along with the beans and the yellow and red tomatoes. Add 1/4 cup vinaigrette and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper and toss again.

Serve at room temperature or cold.

Roasted Root Vegetables With Mustard Seed Vinaigrette

Serves 4 to 6

Mustard Seed Vinaigrette

3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
1/2 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons black or yellow mustard seeds


3 to 4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 to 3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 to 2 golden beets, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup canola oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the vinaigrette: In a medium bowl, combine the vinegar, honey, and mustard. Gradually whisk in the oil until incorporated. Stir in the salt, pepper, and mustard seeds. Cover and refrigerate.

For the salad: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Put the vegetables in a medium bowl and toss with the oil, salt, and pepper. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until crisp-tender, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.

Transfer the roasted vegetables to a medium bowl and add the vinaigrette. Toss to coat. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Roasted Maple Brined Turkey Breast With Crab Apple And Cranberry Relish

Serves 6

Maple Brine

1 1/2 cups maple syrup
1 cup kosher salt
1 cup sugar
6 fresh sage leaves
4 fresh thyme sprigs
3 bay leaves
8 cloves
1 teaspoon crushed dried juniper berries
1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
1 tablespoon allspice berries
8 cups water
4 cups ice cubes


1 6-pound organic bone-in single turkey breast
or 1 2-to 3-pound boneless turkey breast
3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Maple Butter Baste

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup maple syrup

In a large, nonreactive stockpot, combine all the brine ingredients except the ice. Stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the ice, and set aside to cool to room temperature. Add the turkey breast, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 days, or up to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Remove the turkey breast from the refrigerator and the brine. Rinse, pat dry, and rub with the butter, both under and on top of the skin. Season on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the turkey breast on a rack in a roasting pan and roast 2 to 2 1/2 hours for a bone-in breast or 30 to 45 minutes for a boneless breast.

Meanwhile, for the maple butter baste, melt the butter over low heat in a small saucepan. Add the maple syrup and increase the heat to high. Bring to a rolling boil and remove from the heat.

Cook the turkey for about 15 minutes longer, basting with the maple butter every 5 minutes. The turkey is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the breast and not touching the bone registers 150 to 165°F (150°F will provide juicier white meat). Remove from the oven and transfer to a carving board. Tent with aluminum foil and let stand for 10 minutes. Carve the turkey breast and serve with the relish, if desired.

Crabapple And Cranberry Relish

Makes about 2 cups

8 ounces unpeeled crabapples or Granny Smith apples, cored and diced
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup sugar, plus more to taste
1/4 cup cranberry juice

In a nonreactive saucepan, cook the crabapples or apples over medium heat until soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the cranberries and cook until they start to release their liquid, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the ½ cup sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the cranberry juice. Taste and add more sugar if necessary. Use immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Fry Bread

When reservations were created in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government promised to supply Native people with "commodity" foods to replace the subsistence foods that were no longer available to them. For European Americans, a basic commodity is wheat, so wheat flour became a staple for people whose diets for thousands of years had been based on corn. Over the past 150 years, this change has had many effects on Native American cooking, not the least of which is the invention of fry bread. One of the most popular and delicious (and least healthful) of modern Native foods, fry bread is for many communities both a festival and an everyday food.

Recipes and techniques vary, but the result is basically the same: a dough leavened with baking powder and deep-fried until puffed and golden brown.

Makes 6 round flat breads

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup milk, plus more if necessary
Corn or canola oil for deep-frying
Sugar mixed with ground cinnamon for topping (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and the 2 tablespoons sugar. Stir with a whisk to blend. Stir in the 3/4 cup milk to make a stiff dough, adding a bit more if necessary. On a lightly floured board, divide the dough into 6 pieces. Form each into a ball, then roll into a disk about ¼ inch thick.

In a Dutch oven or deep fryer, heat 3 inches oil to 350°F on a deep-fat thermometer. Using a sharp knife, cut an X in the center of each dough disk. Place one disk at a time in the hot oil and cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side. Using tongs, transfer to a paper towel–lined plate to drain. Keep warm in a low oven while frying the remaining disks.

Serve at once, either plain or sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

Bannock Bread With Berries

Serves 4

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup ice water
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups fresh blackberries
2 cups fresh raspberries

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a baking sheet.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder, and salt. Stir with a whisk to blend. Using a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Using a fork, stir in the cold water just until the dry ingredients begin to come together.

On a floured board, form the dough into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out 4 rounds of dough. Transfer the rounds to the prepared pan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven. Transfer the rounds to a wire rack and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, in a deep bowl, beat the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

To serve, place one round on each of 4 dessert plates and top each serving with whipped cream and berries.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And now we turn from fiction to something a little more tangible and delicious. Food. Everyone knows the story of the first Thanksgiving. Right? The pilgrim settlers came together with Native Americans from the Northeast to share a meal. The original menu was something of a joint venture, but over the years a lot of our traditional Thanksgiving dishes have lost the Native flavor, so for those who want to mix things up a bit tomorrow and perhaps try a spread that celebrates the first settlers and our country's first tribes, we have a menu for you.

Here to help us out with our Native American feast is Richard Hetzler. He's the executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian here in Washington, D.C., and he joins us now. Welcome.

RICHARD HETZLER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Before we talk about this incredible food you have laid out before us, I understand your training is actually in French cooking, and then you were involved in actually putting together the menu for the Mitsitam Cafe from the very beginning. What kind of learning curve is that? Is Native cooking completely different from, say, your French training?

HETZLER: You know, I think what I've realized is that it's actually very close to the training that we receive. If you think about, you know, the history of food and where food was, a lot of that dates back to the Native Americans and what they were doing, pre-contact.

HEADLEE: Is it flavorful? You know, a lot of people would assume that it's very simple food, that it doesn't have a lot of finesse.

HETZLER: And most of it was. I think it depends on the regions you're talking about, like if you're talking this region that we're in, the Northeast, you're going to be kind of bland in flavors. There's not a lot going on. They weren't growing a lot, but if you go down to, like, the Southwest, you know, chilis we're growing. Tomatoes we're growing. So all those flavors were part of their everyday meals that were tasty.

HEADLEE: All right. So let's get to the food here. You've prepared a multiple course menu for us, so tell us first what this menu is and why you chose these particular things.

HETZLER: You know, kind of talking about the first Thanksgiving, you know, looking at items that would be grown in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts region, obviously turkey is something that would have been available. It's been here from the very beginning. Native Americans were eating it for thousands and thousands of years.

A couple of the other things we did was the Three Sister Salad. Kind of talks about synergy between Native Americans and the land. You know, they were very big on how things grew and how to work the land, to be able to give back to the land, not just keep taking and taking and taking.

So the corn would grow up and then the bean would actually use the corn as a stalk to grow up. Now, the nice thing is, corn steals nitrogen from the ground. Well, the beans actually put nitrogen back into the ground. And then the squash would actually shade the ground so it would keep the ground nice and moist. So the synergy between those three ingredients together are called the three sisters and how they took care of each other.

It's got some great heirloom beans in it. There are some scarlet runners. There are some anasazis. Got some fry bread, obviously, which is kind of a little on the controversial side.

HEADLEE: We'll talk about that more later.

HETZLER: But I think we have to represent it. We have some wonderful roasted root vegetables, so they're in there. There's rutabagas, there's turnips, there's parsnips, there's carrots, golden beets in there. And then we did - for dessert we did a bannock bread. Bannock bread was kind of one of the first breads that Native Americans started to use. It's kind of based off of flowers, one of the ingredients in it. It can be made with cornmeal as well, baked, and then we just did a little bit of fresh berries using the berries that would have been harvested and then just a little bit of whipped cream on there as well with it.

HEADLEE: Now, all of the things that you've prepared here - and it looks like all the things in your cookbook as well - are things I could make in my house. But that must have been difficult, to come up with recipes at this point that use traditional methods, but the ingredients were accessible and you could cook them the way they needed to be cooked. How did you go about doing that?

HETZLER: Well, and that's where I think the research really came in, because we would never be authentic Native American. There's just not enough research out there. The food that is available and the recipes that are available don't work for the foodies of the 20th century.

For example, cornbread was a very dry, dense bread Native Americans would have carried around in their pack and they would have had that with water or some kind of beverage, you know, where today, if we tried to pass that off to the everyday consumer, it probably wouldn't work as well in the setting that we're in.

HEADLEE: It might break their teeth.

HETZLER: So what we did was we took the approach to use native indigenous foods from the regions we're representing - South America, Central America and then all of North America. And then we found those ingredients that are still available today or like ingredients that are available today, figured out how to put them together in a way that works for the everyday person.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Thanksgiving is tomorrow. Here to bring us a little variety to the menu and celebrate the native roots of that holiday, Richard Hetzler. He's the executive chef of the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

So let's get to the start of the dinner. That's, of course, the turkey which you were talking about. You've brought the special roasted maple brined turkey breast, so you know, while you're talking about that and explaining how somebody who's trained in French cooking comes around on the turkey - because it gets dissed by a lot of chefs...

HETZLER: Yes, it does.

HEADLEE: ...explain to me how you arrived at that, and while you're doing that, I'm going to eat something.

HETZLER: No problem. The process of brining is a way to add moisture into it, but Native Americans were actually doing this for years and years prior to contact in pre-settlement. They were actually - the Native Americans on the East and the West Coast used salt water, actually, to cook and brine their food, not probably so much as we're doing it today to where we're imparting the maple flavor and things into it, but they would actually use it for methods of cooking and different things like that.

HEADLEE: It's delicious, and I wonder, what do you say to people who are out there listening, saying, look, Thanksgiving is about traditional foods, and by traditional they mean the foods they've eaten all their lives on Thanksgiving, comfort foods, things that their grandparents made. So what do you say to somebody who is perhaps a little hesitant to try something new on a holiday like Thanksgiving?

HETZLER: I would say you'd be surprised. The foods that you think of of your grandmother, the succotashes and those different things, all have their roots in the native communities and the native foods that were grown and eaten a long, long, long time ago. So I would say branch out. Nobody wants to change their whole meal, but you could incorporate one piece and start making some traditions of your own to carry down to your children or your family members that keep going from there.

HEADLEE: You know, I have to ask you. You mentioned fry bread earlier and that it's controversial. And I didn't know when - before I had cracked open your book, I wondered if you'd include it, because every time I go to a powwow, every time I go to a fair that's close to a reservation, there's always fry bread heaped with something. Right?

HETZLER: Right, right.

HEADLEE: And yet it's not necessarily traditional. You know, making a fry bread does not go back very far among tribes, and it's terrible for you.

HETZLER: You know, the story about fry bread goes back to, you know, basically the Road of Tears. When Native Americans were put onto reservations and Native Americans were then given those commodity foods, the flours, the sugar, the lard, things that they had never cooked with before, and then they formulated the fry bread, so that's where the first fry bread really started.

It's been a very controversial piece for us at the museum. The museum realized, though, that you cannot go, like you said, to any powwow or any festival, you know, and not have fry bread. So they wanted to be able to represent it. It's a big seller in what we do, but really led to a lot of what's going on in the native communities now - the diabetes, the obesity and things of that nature.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about your cafe itself. It's been incredibly successful. It's gotten rave reviews, even from very picky critics. It's recognized as one of the major food stops in D.C. that you need to go to. Your cookbook, which is beautiful, won second place in the Best Local category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Congratulations.

HETZLER: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: Why do you think it's having such success right now? Is this a moment when we're more open to the idea of Native foods?

HETZLER: There's always an intrigue about Native foods and what Native foods are because, you know, we all kind of know the back story of Native Americans and what happened, but people want to know and they want to recognize and understand kind of our history and where we've come from.

I think the other piece of it is, though, is there's a health factor coming into it now. I mean, if you look at the foods you're tasting here today, you know, they're very light. They're very healthy in the sense that there's not a lot of stuff put into them to really change those flavors or manipulate what you're tasting.

HEADLEE: But they're delicious.

HETZLER: Right. So you're tasting parsnip that really just has a little bit of maple syrup on it, a little bit of butter, but that's really about all you have on it. And you're getting the natural flavor of that parsnip with a little bit of that maple, so you're really not manipulating these flavors and you're getting the true healthiness of that dish, are what you get in the taste.

HEADLEE: That's true. Richard Hetzler, executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian. He's also the author of "The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook" and he joined us here in NPR's Washington studios.

Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.

HETZLER: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

HEADLEE: You can get recipes for the dishes we tried today by going to NPR.org. Click on Programs and then on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.