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Native American-style dishes easy to explore

Marialisa Calta
United Features Syndicate
Maren Caruso/"Foods of the Americas"
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Some people return from vacation talking about the museums they visited. Others talk about the food. We know who we are. We save menus like others save playbills. We may not have pictures, but we’ve got a few souvenir pounds.

Thus it was that when my husband and I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., we spent an inordinate amount of time in the cafe there, a kind of elaborate, Zagat-rated food court offering native dishes from five geographic regions in the Western Hemisphere: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Mesoamerica and Great Plains. We sampled planked salmon (Northwest Coast), tamales (South America), a Great Plains taco with buffalo chili on fry bread and other delicacies. There was wild rice, and corn in several incarnations.

This museum enables the visitor to taste the culture. The foods offered at the American Indian museum give the visitor a palpable, sensory experience of the breadth of native cuisines.

I’m not advising anyone to skip the museum’s extraordinary exhibits, but I am suggesting that as you explore Native American cultures, you discover their foodways. Learning never tasted so good.

WILD RICE AND CORN FRITTERS

11⁄2 cups water, plus more as needed

11⁄2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt

1⁄2 cup wild rice, rinsed several times

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3⁄4 cup wheat flour or cattail flour, plus more as needed

1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup fresh corn kernels

4 scallions, white part only, thinly sliced

2 eggs

1⁄4 cup beer

1⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

safflower oil, for frying

In a saucepan, bring the water and 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt to a boil. Add the rice, and cover loosely to allow steam to escape. Decrease heat to a slow simmer, and cook for about 35 minutes, until tender. Add more water as necessary to keep the rice covered throughout. Remove from heat, drain, and allow to cool.

Place the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, the baking powder, cornstarch and flour in a bowl. Stir with a fork. Add the cooked rice, cayenne, corn and scallion, and stir well. Crack the eggs in a separate bowl, and whisk. Add the beer, and beat well. Fold the egg-beer mixture into the rice mixture with a rubber spatula, sprinkling the Parmesan cheese (if using) over the batter while folding.

Line a platter with paper towels, and preheat the oven to 200 F.

Heat 1 inch of oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. When a small drip of batter dropped into the oil sizzles, the oil is ready. Using two soupspoons, slip a spoonful of batter into the hot oil, using one spoon to slide the batter off the other. Fry a “test” fritter, cooking it five to six minutes, then turning with tongs and cooking for another five to six minutes until golden brown on all sides and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the fritter to the prepared platter in the preheated oven. If it is too “lacy” and falls apart, add a bit more flour to the batter and repeat the test. When you get it right, cook the rest of the batter in batches, leaving plenty of space between the fritters to allow for even cooking. Serve warm.

Yield: 16 fritters

Recipe from “Food of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions” by Fernando and Marlene Divina and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (Ten Speed, 2010)

Marialisa Calta is the author of “Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family” (Perigee, 2005).