Adapting authenticity in Three Sisters Salad

three sisters salad

“Everyone is doing Thai in college dining,” says Patrick McElroy, campus executive chef for Bon Appetit at Washington University in St. Louis. So he set out to “push the envelope” on ethnic cuisine and offer Native American dishes—a move that had support from the American Indian Student Association. But McElroy didn’t realize the challenge ahead. “I wanted to maintain the integrity and tradition of the food, but there were very few recipes,” he says. “I had to do a lot of research.” To develop the menu, he enlisted the help of chef Nephi Craig, founder of the Native American Culinary Association. Craig helped McElroy adapt authentic preparations using indigenous ingredients such as the “three sisters” crops—squash, beans and corn—planted together by early North American tribes. The Three Sisters Salad is now a staple in Wash U’s dining program, which completes 18,000 to 22,000 transactions daily. 

recipe revamp circle chart

  1. The classic Three Sisters recipe calls for corn, beans and squash to be cooked in a soup or stew, along with onions, tomatoes and seasonings. McElroy transformed the ingredients into a composed salad to make a recurring menu item that could be served in any season. Frozen corn allows the salad to be replicated year-round.
  2. Along with butternut squash, McElroy incorporates roasted zucchini and yellow summer squash into the salad. Both are easy to prep and cook, he says, and they brighten up the dish. Dried red and navy beans are cooked in advance, blast-chilled and refrigerated to use as needed. McElroy sometimes varies the salad by using white, black or pinto beans, he says.
  3. The addition of cooked wheat berries is a modern twist that turns the dish into a more nutritionally balanced vegetarian item. McElroy updates and freshens the presentation with halved cherry tomatoes instead of chunks, and a garnish of toasted pumpkin seeds. 

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