Museum dining carries an unsavory reputation that's unfortunately well deserved. So, the first visitors back in 2004 to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington may be forgiven if they cocked a skeptical eyebrow at the name of its cafe, Mitsitam. That's "let's eat" in the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples.
From the start, though, Mitsitam (mitt-SEE-tom) clicked with its concept of presenting indigenous foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere. The cafe upholds the museum's mission by offering visitors easy-to-swallow lessons on Native American cooking techniques, ingredients, flavor and culture.
"People really like it. It's pretty much regarded as the best museum cafeteria in town," said Joe Yonan, the Washington Post's food and travel editor.
Recipes for 90 cafe dishes have just been published in "The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook" (Fulcrum, $22.95). The recipes range from roast venison to fiddlehead fern salad to cedar-planked salmon to fry bread. The note that accompanies the fry bread recipe illustrates the approach of both the cafe and book.
"When reservations were created in the mid-1800s, the U.S. government promised to supply native people with 'commodity' food to replace the subsistence foods that were no long 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," the book explains.
"To get a piece of the food and taste the history is important," said author Richard Hetzler, the cafe's executive chef. "People don't know what native foods really are."
Of German extraction and schooled in French and American cooking techniques, Hetzler said his time at the Mitsitam Cafe has been an education.
Some recipes use ingredients from the era after the arrival of Europeans, such as pork and cream.
"I don't think you can cook only pre-contact foods," Hetzler said.
Still, as museum Director Kevin Grover, a member of the Pawnee nation, noted in a press release, the cafe "allows our visitors to experience native cultures and indigenous foods in ways that appeal to all the senses, transcending the limits of a museum exhibition."
With this book, the cafe's mission goes beyond the museum itself, allowing cooks everywhere to learn as they eat.
Hazelnut and honey-roasted acorn squash
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
"The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook" offers history and culture along with the food. This recipe, for example, "combines two of the staple foods of the Northeast's Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Algonquin peoples. So integrated were squash and nuts into the woodland cultures that several tribes named their seasons or months for them."
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skinned (see note below)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons honey
2 acorn squash, unpeeled, halved, seeded, cut into 1-inch-thick wedges
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Put nuts in a food processor; pulse 5 or 6 times until coarsely ground. Add the butter, process to combine, 15-20 seconds. Scrape into a medium bowl. Add honey; whisk until smooth.
2. Arrange the squash wedges, skin side down, on a greased baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; spread with the hazelnut butter. Roast until fork-tender, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
Note: Toast hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven, stirring often, until fragrant, about 5-10 minutes. Place on a clean kitchen towel; rub in the towel to remove skins.
Per serving: 391 calories, 60% of calories from fat, 32 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 28 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 281 mg sodium, 7 g fiber
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
A recipe from "The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook." Buffalo meat may need to be ordered from your butcher; some supermarkets do carry it. Masa harina and chipotle chilies in adobo sauce are available from Latino groceries and some supermarkets.
2 tablespoons oil
1 pound ground buffalo meat
2 canned chipotle chilies in adobo, minced
1 each, chopped: yellow onion, green bell pepper
1/4 cup chili powder
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 to 2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 cup tomato puree
2 cups cooked or canned pinto beans, drained, rinsed
1 cup water
1 cup beef broth, homemade or canned, plus more if necessary
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup masa harina
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook the ground buffalo, breaking it up with a spoon, until well-browned and crumbled, 8 minutes. Add the chilies, onion, bell pepper, chili powder, coriander, cumin and garlic. Cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes.
2. Stir in the tomatoes and tomato puree; simmer 15 minutes. Add the pinto beans, water and beef broth. Heat to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to simmer. Cook 30 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste; simmer 30 minutes. Gradually stir in the masa harina; cook until thickened lightly. Add more water or stock if the chili becomes too thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Per serving: 334 calories, 32% of calories from fat, 12 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 46 mg cholesterol, 35 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 1337 mg sodium, 8 g fiber
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
Before contact with the Europeans, versions of this pudding would have contained cornmeal, dried fruit, nut butter, water, maple sugar or honey, according to Richard Hetzler in "The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook." Milk or cream replaced the water, he writes, and eggs, molasses and more spices were added.
3 1/4 cups milk
1 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups each: cornmeal, dried currants
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine 3 cups of the milk and the maple syrup in a medium saucepan. Heat, stirring, to a simmer over medium heat. Add the butter; stir until melted.
2. Combine the cornmeal, currants, ginger and nutmeg in a small bowl; stir to blend. Gradually stir into the milk mixture. Cook, stirring often, until thickened to the consistency of mush, 10 minutes.
3. Pour the mixture into a greased, 8-inch square baking dish; smooth to even the top. Pour remaining 1/4 cup of the milk on top. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve hot pudding in warmed bowls.
Per serving: 523 calories, 19% of calories from fat, 11 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 31 mg cholesterol, 100 g carbohydrates, 9 g protein, 66 mg sodium, 4 g fiberCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun