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Friday, March 4, 2011

(Native) American Pie

The journey of a thousand miles begins at your front door, the saying goes, so I'm going to kick off this project here at home with the U.S. of A. It was hard to decide what kind of pie to make. We often see apple pie held up as a symbol of American patriotism, but the fact is that apple pie was British long before it was American. Apples aren't even native to this continent. So I wanted to back up a bit further and create a pie that would actually be uniquely American.

Before the British and Spanish ever thought to test the roundness of the world, Native tribes cultivated three primary crops: corn, beans, and squash. Known to many tribes as "the three sisters," these crops were generally planted together in the most widely-known example of companion planting. The beans climb the corn and fix nitrogen for the squash, which spreads out over the ground to protect the beans and corn from hot dry soil and from raccoons (who don't like walking through the squash leaves). In this way, every plant benefits from each other and produces more food than each would have on its own.

Native tribes also hunted American bison, known commonly (if inaccurately) as buffalo. This is one of my favorite meats. Mainstream Americans don't eat it as much as we eat cows, chickens, and pigs - all European imports - but buffalo is delicious. One interesting thing that keeps it delicious is the fact that you cannot raise buffalo in a feedlot. This happy quirk might frustrate so-called "farmers" who would prefer to fatten them up on corn and disease like factory cows, but grassfed buffalo is a lucious, flavorful thing and nature evidently wants to keep it that way.

So to honor my own country's food history, I prepared a true American Pie: buffalo, beans, and squash in a cornmeal crust, held together with a Central American coffee gravy. This pie is exquisite, and it was remarkably easy to put together. Don't be intimidated by the long preparation time; most of it is just passive time in the oven. If you like, you can make the filling a day or two ahead, then just top it with the crust and bake it up when you're ready for pie.


1 lb. buffalo stew meat, cut into 1" chunks
½ an onion, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp flour (see note)
1 cup strong coffee
⅔ cup beef broth or water
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 to 1 ½ lb. butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 medium-sized carrot, diced
1 large stalk celery, sliced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp crushed red pepper
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp cinnamon
2 cans beans or 4 cups cooked beans (see note)

NOTE: As I share my home with people who are gluten-sensitive, I made this gluten-free by using brown rice flour. You can use whatever flour you like. For the beans, I used a combination of Great Northern beans and Adzuki beans; again, use black beans, kidney beans, whatever you're into. I did like the combination of one dark kind and one white kind for visual appeal.

Start by heating a Dutch oven or deep, heavy skillet to medium-high. Add buffalo meat and onion. Saute 2-3 minutes or until meat is browned and onions have begun to soften. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 ° F (175 ° C).

Add the olive oil and flour to the pan and mix into a paste. Cook 1-2 minutes until it begins to bubble, then whisk in the coffee a little at a time so it stays smooth. Cook another couple of minutes until the mixture simmers, then stir the meat and onions back in; add all the remaining ingredients except the beans and stir again. Cover tightly and transfer to the oven; let it simmer in the oven for 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the squash is cooked through. When you remove the filling from the oven, stir in the beans and keep covered until you're ready to make the pie.

1 cup flour (see earlier note - the same applies)
⅓ cup coarse-ground cornmeal
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
½ cup frozen butter
2-4 Tbsp ice water

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Grate the butter with a cheese grater directly into the flour mixture; gently combine with your hands. Add ice water, 1 Tbsp at a time, and gently mix with a fork until the mixture holds together. Pat into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.

Pour the filling into a deep-dish pie plate or a 9" square casserole dish; spread out evenly. Preheat the oven to 400 ° F.

Spritz a little water on the counter and lay a sheet of wax paper on top (the water will hold it in place so it doesn't slide around). Roll out the crust on the wax paper until it's about 2" larger than the dish. Slip your hand under the wax paper and carefully flip the crust on top of the pie filling, peeling the wax paper off the top. Fold excess crust under the edges and crimp. Cut a few vents in the top, making a pretty pattern if you want. If you like, you can also cut off some excess crust before crimping, and use it to cut out little shapes to decorate the top of the pie like I did.

Slide the pie in the oven and bake 30-45 minutes or until crust is golden-brown. The gravy may bubble a little through the vents, too. Let the pie rest at room temperature for 10 minutes or so, then slice into wedges or squares and serve with a salad.

And for dessert? Well... a caramel apple pie certainly wouldn't hurt, just for the sake of tradition!

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