Three sisters casserole–if you grew up in the southwestern part of the country, I can almost guarantee you’ve had it in some form or fashion. It makes the most glorious use of beans, squash, and corn, three staple crops of the Native Americans who inhabited the land long ago and, in some cases, still do to this day. The name references the planting method the tribes used wherein the three crops were planted very near each other to maximize production and protect each other from the desert elements.
With the addition of Hatch green chiles, my version takes a definite turn toward New Mexico. The sweet corn mixture on top falls somewhere between the masa that surrounds tamales and the sweet corn pudding I love at the end of a spicy New Mexican or southwestern meal. With protein-packed black beans and the squash mixture of your choice, this is a complete meal unto itself. Add a side salad (and maybe a margarita), and you’ll be more than satisfied.
Three sisters casserole–a traditional southwestern dish–is the perfect late summer recipe for all that corn and zucchini in your back yard and at the farmer’s market. Easy to make and endlessly adaptable, it’s sure to be a new favorite for vegetarians and meat eaters alike.
New Mexico Style Three Sisters Casserole
adapted from Martha Rose Shulman, New York Times
For the beans:
2 TBSP olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1-2 roasted Hatch chiles (hot or mild), seeded and minced
3 c. simmered black beans, cooking liquid reserved
2 (15 oz.) cans organic black beans (Organic is important because you won’t be fully draining them.)
salt, to taste
For the squash:
2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
1/2 c. minced onion
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 lb. zucchini, summer squash, or a mixture of the two, sliced into 1/2-in thick half moons
1 tsp. dried oregano, preferably Mexican
For the corn:
2 c. corn kernels
1 1/4 c. milk
1/2 c. masa, cornmeal, or polenta
1/2 grated asadero Monterey Jack cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 c. crumbled cotija, queso fresco, or feta cheese
1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
1/4 c. Mexican crema, sour cream, or plain Greek yogurt thinned with a little milk
1. Heat oven to 375° F. Oil the bottom on insides of a 2-qt. casserole or gratin dish.
2. To refry beans cooked from scratch, drain off about 1/2 c. of the cooking liquid and keep in a separate bowl to moisten beans if they become too dry. To refry canned beans, drain them partially, reserving at least half of the liquid in the cans.
3. Regardless of the type of beans you’re using, heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large non-stick frying pan. Add cumin and Hatch chiles and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture begins to sizzle. Add beans and fry, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon, until they thicken and form a crust on the bottom of the pan. Stir up crust into the beans and cook until thickened, but not dry, about 10 minutes. Add reserved liquid or a bit of water if the beans dry out too much. Taste and add salt, if needed. Spread in an even layer on the bottom of the prepared dish.
4. To prepare the squash, clean and dry the skillet sed to cook the beans. Heat over medium and add olive oil. Add onion and sauté until tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add squash, oregano, salt, and pepper, and turn heat up slightly. Cook, frequently stirring or tossing in the pan, 8-10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spread in a layer over the beans.
5. Combine the corn and milk in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the corn is just tender, 5 minutes, then stir in the masa. Once the masa is fully incorporated and the mixture begins to thicken a little, add in the cheese. Spread the corn mixture evenly over the top of the zucchini. Top with cotija and drizzle with olive oil.
6. Bake 25 minutes, until the top layer browns a bit and the sides are bubbly. Remove from the oven and let sit five minutes. Drizzle with crema and top with cilantro.
Yield: 8 main dish servings