Sunday, June 24, 2012

Three Sisters Molé Enchiladas with Blackberry Salsa

This is a special cooking edition of my blog.  Don't panic - cooking is nothing more than applied Biology (and Chemistry and Physics and Math and Art...), so there are some way interesting biological phenomena to write about here.  One of my cooking heroes, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, has issued a cooking challenge, and I took the bait.  Isa Chandra is the author of several vegan cookbooks, including Appetite for Reduction, the most useful and well-thought-out cookbook I've ever used.  The challenge is to cook a vegan entrée in under 40 minutes using black-eyed peas, bittersweet chocolate, mint and blackberries.  The recipe must be published on the internet, and there are prizes and fame/fortune involved.  I'll report back about the results of the contest!

Here is a picture of my invention, Three Sisters Molé Enchiladas with Blackberry Salsa: 
Three Sisters Molé Enchiladas with Blackberry Salsa
The contest ingredients got me thinking about agricultural centers of origin.  Agriculture started in many concentrated locations (centers of origin) throughout the world, and cuisines arose based on what crops were domesticated from the species growing in the area, with foreign ingredients added in to the extent that cultures traveled and mixed.  See if you can match the crops with the center of origin here based on what you know about modern international cuisines.  Answers are below the table.

Center of Origin Crop
1. China a. wheat, oats, fig, pomegranate
2. Indiab. maize, beans, tomato, potato, pumpkins
3. Ethiopiac. wheat, barley, sorghum, okra, coffee
4. South America      d. wheat, rape (canola), peas, lettuce, asparagus       
5. Mediterraneane. rice, chickpea, eggplant, tangerine
6. Middle Eastf. millet, soybean, cabbage, radish, apple

Answers: 1f, 2e, 3c, 4b, 5d, 6a

Since two of the challenge ingredients (chocolate and blackberries) originate from the New World, and beans are mostly a New World crop (though black eyed peas originated in Africa), I decided to mine this vein and emphasize New World crops.  I ended up with enchiladas based on the agricultural icons, the three sisters: beans, corn and squash.  I also used tomatoes, peppers, onions, blackberries, chocolate and sunflower seeds in the recipe.  If only I could have figured out how to add cranberries, potatoes and sweet potatoes, I would have hit all the biggest crops to have originated from the New World.  Ingredients from elsewhere in the world include cumin, cilantro, oregano, wheat, cucumbers and lemon.  Isn't it strange that cumin, cilantro and cucumbers, ingredients that are indispensable to Tex-Mex cuisine, were imported to the Americas?  And that tomatoes were not an original part of Italian cuisine but were brought to Europe from Central America? 

So who are these sisters, and what are they doing in a vegan recipe?  The three sisters are staple crops grown together as companion plants by several groups of Native Americans.  The seeds of beans, corn and squash are planted in a group on a mound.  The corn grows tall and straight, providing both food for people and a pole for the beans to climb.  The squash stays low to the ground and keeps the soil cooler and moist by shading it around the base of all three plants.  It also has prickly leaves, deterring some potential pests.  The beans stalks climb the corn, lifting their fruits off the ground and taking advantage of light above the squash leaves.  At the same time, the bean roots enrich the soil with nitrogen for all three plants.  The three sisters produce more food when grown together than any of the plants grown separately.  In addition, the beans and corn provide complete protein from vegetarian sources for their human cultivators.

The recipe is below, if you'd like to make this meal-with-a-story.  It turned out to be delicious, and it's a low-calorie and low-fat meal as well.  The first time you make these, you'll need to be a Zen kitchen master to get everything done in less than 40 minutes: banish the pets and kids, turn off the radio, stand up straight, elbows in, breathe into your abdomen.  You can do it.  It's quick and easy the second time through, since all the components are actually very simple once you know how they go.  I've found this to be the case with any new recipe I make - there's always a learning curve.  You can also prepare the salsa a day ahead and let it sit in the fridge to develop its flavors, but that would violate the 40 minutes thing.
Three Sisters Molé Enchiladas with Blackberry Salsa
Three Sisters Molé Enchiladas with Blackberry Salsa
* Ingredients with asterisks evolved and were domesticated in the New World
Serves 6, at approximately 450 calories per serving, depending on your corn tortillas

Molé Enchilada Sauce Ingredients
1 T sunflower oil*
1 T whole wheat flour
2 T chili powder*
1 t cumin
2 c vegetable broth
1 small can tomato paste*
2 t fresh oregano, minced (1 t dried)
2 oz vegan bittersweet chocolate*
1/2 t salt

Enchilada Ingredients
1 t sunflower oil*
1 large onion, chopped (reserve 2 T for salsa)*
1 medium zucchini, chopped*
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalepeno, diced*
1 t cumin
1 15 oz. can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed (*most beans originate from South America, but not black eyed peas)
1 15 oz can hominy, drained and rinsed* (you could substitute sweet corn if you prefer, but add it with the zucchini while cooking)
12 soft corn tortillas
2 T roasted, salted, shelled sunflower seeds*

Salsa Ingredients
2 T chopped onion (from above)*
Juice of one lemon
1 t olive oil (ok, you could use sunflower, but olive oil is yummy in salsa)
2 cucumbers, chopped (peel if you like)
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 c chopped fresh mint
1/2 t cumin
1/4 t cayenne*
1/2 t salt
1/2 cup blackberries*

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Make the enchilada sauce:  In a medium saucepan heat the oil on medium, add the flour and stir until toasty (30 seconds), stir in chili powder and cumin for 30 seconds, stir in broth, add all other ingredients.  Bring to a boil, reduce temperature and simmer 5 minutes, stirring often.

3. Make the enchiladas:
  • In a large sauté pan on medium heat, sauté the onions in the oil until they start to soften, add the zucchini, garlic, jalepeno and cumin and continue to sauté until the zucchini starts to soften.  Stir in the black eyed peas and hominy and allow to heat up. 
  • Dunk the tortillas in the enchilada sauce and wrap a large spoonful of filling in each tortilla.  Careful - everything should be hot at this point - don't burn yourself.  Line up the tortillas in a large glass baking dish.  Pour the enchilada sauce over the enchiladas and sprinkle sunflower seeds on the top.  
  • Bake for 10-15 minutes uncovered, until the edges of the tortillas start to brown and the sauce is bubbling.
4. Make the salsa while the enchiladas bake: Combine all ingredients except blackberries in a dish and stir well.  Gently stir in the blackberries.

5. Serve enchiladas topped with a spoonful of salsa.

I owe a big thanks to my friend, Jenny, a vegan food aficionado, for the idea to make enchiladas.  Thanks also to my friends for being guinea pigs: Bruce, Coke and Linda, your bravery and enthusiasm are inspiring!


  1. Yum! That looks fantastic!

  2. Congrats on your PPK Vegan "Chopped" honourable mention! Your recipe looks sooo good!

  3. Looks delicious!

    I was able to correctly guess two of the matches in your table and had to check for the other four.

    My first correct match was for India, since I live here. :D And I knew South America was the answer the moment I saw maize and beans on the list. :)

    I might have guesses China for the soybean but I had already looked at the answer by mistake while glancing at the table. haha