Native American cuisine: potential exists for sophisticated offerings

In my “in” box is no shortage of annual predictions that involve food trends. Native American ingredients, recipes and culinary traditions never seem to make the cut. Very perplexing.

Do you know of a restaurant that specializes in Native American cuisine? What is that kind of food, beyond fry bread, wild rice and maybe venison? For a nation with a growing interest to “eat local” and preserve food heritage, this deep root of culture sure seems prime for some smart chef to develop, and foodies to embrace.

One of my more interesting and unusual meals in recent months came from Dream Dance Steak, the fine-dining Potawatomi restaurant in Milwaukee. Executive Chef Mike Christensen, of Lac du Flambeau heritage, is a Culinary Institute of America grad who produced a multi-course Native American Heritage Dinner. He demonstrated great imagination while staying true to his ancestry.

That meant starting with a petite blue corn blintz topped with huckleberry jam and crème fraiche, moving to a rabbit terrine with leak puree and pea shoots, then a fish broth with foraged mushrooms. A strawberry-honey sorbet cleansed the palate before the entrée: venison medallions with wild rice pilaf, succotash and a wild mushroom demi-glace.

For dessert, after a medley of micro veggies with pine nuts, then artisanal cheeses and fruits: Wild Rice Orange Pudding (recipe below).

These lovely dishes – or spinoffs – aren’t likely to show up as more than occasional menu specials during 2018. Potawatomi staff say that’s because of low consumer interest.

Supply and demand help decide what this restaurant – and others, from Hurley to Beloit – decide to serve regularly. That’s just good business. Previous attempts to make Native American cuisine an ongoing menu theme at Dream Dance were not enthusiastically embraced by diners.

But maybe now is the time.

Dan Cornelius of Native Food Network, Sun Prairie, is trying to improve distribution of indigenous foods. His work connects American Indian food producers with chefs and other customers.

A “Made by American Indians” trademark identifies their authentic products: wild rice, hominy corn, blue corn, maple syrup, wild berry jams and syrups, fish, meats – and even artwork.

“We’ve reached out to restaurants many times, and it can be hard to even get Lake Superior whitefish” on menus, says Cornelius, a member of the Oneida Nation. “For all the focus we’ve had on local and health food, some of this needs to involve greater consumer education” about the value – as in healthy eating, strengthening tribal economies, sustainable land use.

Madison businesses Forequarter (forequartermadison.com), Underground Butcher (undergroundbutcher.com), Weary Traveler (wearytravelerfreehouse.com), Willy Street Co-op (willystreet.coop) and SuperCharge! Foods (superchargefoods.com) are among the network’s restaurant and retail customers.

Annual Food Summit gatherings challenge casinos and others to deepen support of tribal food/art producers. U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities contracts already involve more than 100,000 pounds of hand-picked wild rice.

Look for the network’s Native Market and Gallery products at pop-up events and the On Wisconsin Spring Powwow, tentatively April 14 at Alliant Energy Center Arena in Madison. crazycrow.com, 608-267-3976; nativefoodnetwork.com, 608-709-1440

WILD RICE ORANGE PUDDING
Makes 12

For the rice:
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 quart water
1 cup uncooked wild rice

For the pudding:
2 sheets bronze gelatin
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier liquor
4 cups cooked wild rice

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

For the rice: Bring orange juice and water to boil. Add uncooked rice and cover with tight-fitting lid. Reduce heat and cook one hour, or until rice is tender and opened. Add more hot water if the rice needs more moisture to absorb. Set cooked wild rice aside.

For the pudding: Soften the gelatin by soaking it in the orange juice. In a saucepot, bring milk and cardamom to a slight boil. Whisk sugar, egg yolks and Grand Marnier in a bowl until pale yellow.

Add the bloomed gelatin with orange juice to the hot milk and whisk until dissolved. Temper the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture very slowly. Add 4 cups of cooked rice, and mix together completely.

Portion mixture into six-ounce ramekins and bake in a hot water bath (a pan of hot water that is placed in the oven, to add moisture) for 40-45 minutes, or until the custard is jiggly but set. Enjoy warm or chilled.

Here’s a quick quartet of nibbles about ongoing or upcoming food trends:

Dining with strangers – IMHO, look for more restaurants to offer seating at long communal tables. It’s a safe way to meet new people, and food is a universal ice breaker. Slip away or linger afterward, whatever feels right.

Good-for-you potions – Spice powerhouse McCormick predicts more of us will begin or end the day with elixirs made with healthy ingredients. Think beyond fruit smoothies and juice blends. Mix tart apples, cucumbers, oranges and cayenne pepper. Or, pineapple, ginger, turmeric, dandelion greens and sparkling water.

Super powders – Whole Foods says more herbal/protein combos will be available as extras for soups, lattes – you name it. The goal? That depends on the product. One might jumpstart energy. Another might clear the digestive tract.

Japanese breakfasts – Bon Appetit writes longingly about beautiful and healthy Asian fare for the top of the day. So ditch the java, bagel and cream cheese for a pretty arrangement of grilled fish, pickled veggie salad, eggs and rice, spiked with miso and other Asian seasoning blends.