You might think of spaghetti sauce as Italian, but it was an American Indian who supplied the tomato. Not until the discovery of America was the rest of the world introduced to avocados, sweet potatoes, pineapples, tomatoes, chili peppers, pumpkins and corn. In fact, almost 75 percent of our present food plants were new to Europeans 500 years ago. Our classic barbeques and clambakes, steamed lobsters and stuffed oysters, Boston baked beans, Brunswick stew, clam and corn chowders and gumbos, and a variety of cornbreads and puddings are uniquely American Indian.
Unaware of events to come, many American Indian tribes extended aid to the early colonists by teaching them the ways of nature. And the colonists needed the help. Although the forests and rivers were jammed with delectables, many colonists were city bred and did not have the tools or know-how to reap the wealth. Even those familiar with country living were unprepared for the ferocious wilderness.
Along with those often-told lessons in how to harvest corn, pumpkin and squash, the Indians taught the colonists how to gather and prepare nuts for flour pastes, oil, butter and dyes. Nuts carried many Indians through the winter as the cold progressed and the food supply ran low. A main event in the Indians' annual cycle included the autumn harvest of black walnuts, acorns, hickory nuts and chestnuts. Many Indians deemed nuts so important that several tribes named their moons or times of the year after them.
Nut and seed butters and oils provided great flavor accents and were a widely used staple in native diets.
To make the nut butters or seed butters as they did, grind 1 cup or more shelled dried nuts or seeds into a paste, using stones or a mortar and pestle. If you must, you may use a blender. Many nut butters are sweet enough plain. Others, however, may require a teaspoon or two of honey or maple syrup mixed in to taste. Ready-made nut butters also are available in stores.
Nut butters make an excellent nutritional topping on homemade breads, cakes, fresh fruits and vegetables. Keep them refrigerated to retain flavor and reduce spoilage.
This being the season for hiking and canoeing and generally reacquainting oneself with nature, it is also a particularly appropriate time to add an authentic American Indian dish to your repertoire. The hazelnuts in the recipe below are widely available in supermarkets; you do not have to wait until autumn to gather them.
EXPRESS LANE LIST: Quail, sunflower seed oil, fine cornmeal, nut butter, seeded grapes, shelled hazelnuts, rice. QUAIL WITH HAZELNUTS (4 servings)
4 quail, dressed
1/4 cup sunflower seed oil
1 cup fine cornmeal
1/4 cup nut butter such as almond, chestnut, hazelnut or black walnut or the oil of same nuts
1 cup hot water
1 cup seeded grapes
1/2 cup shelled hazelnuts or pecans, chopped
Rice for serving
Rub the quail inside and out with the sunflower seed oil and roll in the cornmeal to coat the skins lightly.
Scoop the oil from the surface of the nut butter and saute' the quail in the oil, turning often, over medium heat, until they are well browned. Add the water and grapes, cover and simmer over low heat for 45 minutes, stirring once or twice to blend.
Toast the hazelnuts in a 350-degree oven, until light brown -- about 10 minutes. Serve each quail on a bed of rice and spoon over each bird the juices from the pan and the hot, toasted hazelnuts.