Loretta Oden: Native chef and culinary trendsetter

Loretta Oden

Story and image originally published in Taos News

Photo:  Katharine Egli

Loretta Oden, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, opened the first restaurant in the country that showcased the indigenous foods of America—The Corn Dance Café, established in Santa Fe in 1993.

“I wanted to promote the healthy food that Native people ate before the Europeans came,” she said. “I incorporated into the menu as many ingredients as I could, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.”

Among these ingredients were bison, rabbit, elk, wild rice, quinoa, and the three sisters (corn, beans and squash) which are a common denominator in Native American culinary traditions.

“Every tribe has a slightly different version about the origin of the three sisters,” she said, “but it is always a lovely story of where our food came from and its meaning for our people.”

Oden combined classic culinary techniques with old-fashioned Native American cooking processes like smoking and salting, and a beautiful presentation. She saw her restaurant as a vehicle to promote not only Native American staples, but also their culture, traditions and ways of life.

“You can find Italian, Spanish, and German food in almost every city, but there are very few Native American restaurants,” she said. “Native food is much more than fried bread and Indian Tacos! We have an amazing diversity of dishes, which also points out to our diversity as people. I thought that a great way of imparting knowledge about our traditions was through food.”

The chef on TV

The Corn Dance Café became a success and Oden was featured in The Today Show, Good Morning America, and Cooking Live. She also appeared as a guest chef in the Robert Mondavi Great Chefs series.

After she closed The Corn Dance Café in 2003, Oden began to travel doing cooking demonstrations and offering lectures about Native American cuisine, though she doesn’t rule out the possibility of opening another restaurant.

“Maybe somewhere near the ocean,” she said.

Oden is also the creator and host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS mini-series “Seasoned with Spirit—A Native Cook’s Journey”.

“Each episode was focused on a particular tribe and shot on location,” she said. “It was a great adventure that included not only cooking, hunting, and fishing, but also scary incidents like a buffalo stampede that had been requested by the producer.”

Wonders of chocolate

Oden loves chocolate and uses it abundantly in her culinary creations.

“Lots of people associate it with Switzerland,” she said. “They don’t know that chocolate has its origin in America. Legend goes that Montezuma consumed around forty golden goblets of cacao a day, mixed with vanilla beans, honey or just bittersweet. When the Spaniards discovered that chocolate gave them strength to march for days without eating anything else, they brought it to Europe and started growing it there.”

One of Oden’s favorite desserts is a dark chocolate bread pudding called Montezuma’s Revenge, though it appears in many menus as Montezuma’s Delight.

“In Indian Country we have great sense of humor,” she said. “I like to have fun with my food!”

Dark chocolate is known as a great source of antioxidants. It can also lower blood pressure and diminish the risk of heart disease. But there is more to it.

“Chocolate is also believed to have aphrodisiac properties,” said Oden. “After all, Montezuma had several wives to take care of. In any case, it tastes very good and several centuries after its discovery we are still enjoying the wonders of chocolate.”

She doesn’t add sugar to Montezuma’s Revenge.

“Sugar cane didn’t exist in America before the conquest,” she said. “When I make a dessert, I use cherries, agave nectar or honey for sweetness.”

Teaching and learning

Oden is a food historian and a consultant for the Oklahoma Historical Society. She also works closely with the National Indian Health Service to promote the research, use and revival of Native foods.

“Most of what I know about food, I learned it firsthand,” she said. “I grew up in the kitchen, seeing my mother, grandmas and aunts cook. I have been cooking for over thirty years and have traveled all over the country and abroad, working with great chefs in Italy, Japan and France. I still learn something new everywhere I go and, hopefully, I also leave some knowledge of my food and culture in all these places too.”

Oden’s food tips

If you have something to say to other people, say it while you are feeding then. They will have their mouths full and you won’t be interrupted.

Never be afraid to take a bite of food, no matter how unusual it seems. You will be surprised of how good it tastes!

If you want to really know people, invite them to share your table. You will learn a lot about their lives, culture and beliefs.

Loretta Oden’s recipes

Montezuma’s Revenge (a spicy chocolate bread pudding)

Serving Size: 6

Ingredients:

6 ounces dark 70%+ good quality bittersweet chocolate, in pieces

3 whole dried pasilla or chile negra

3 cups milk

5 whole fresh eggs

1 cup brown sugar-firmly packed

1 tsp.  allspice

1/2 tsp. Mexican canela (or cinnamon)

2 tbsp. pure vanilla or 1 whole vanilla beans, opened and seeds scraped out

1/4 cup sun-dried cranberries/minced

1/4 cup sun-dried tart cherries/minced

6 ounces French bread or chocolate brioche* cubed

1 cup pecans, finely chopped

3 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into bits

Directions:

Open the chiles, discard seeds and stems and toast slightly by laying them in a skillet or on

a griddle/flattop over medium high heat and pressing with a spatula until they sizzle.

Turn and repeat on other side. Transfer chilies to a bowl of warm water and soak until soft (about 30 minutes).

Drain and discard any leftover seeds, stems or veins.

Puree chilies in a blender then strain into a small bowl.

Place milk and chocolate pieces into a saucepan and heat, stirring until chocolate is melted. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar canela, allspice, vanilla and chile puree. Slowly add the chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly. Add the cranberries, cherries and bread cubes; weigh down with a plate so that the bread is fully submersed and allow to stand for about 30 minutes.

Lightly butter a 10 inch round cake pan that is at least 2-3” deep.

Pour pudding mixture into pan, sprinkle with chopped nuts and dot with butter pieces. Bake in 350 degree F. oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (about 45 minutes). Allow to cool slightly and serve warm with honeyed cream, vanilla bean ice cream or A’Maizing” Corn Ice Cream and cranberry coulis.

You may paint the plate with the cranberry coulis or blackberry sauce or prickly pear sauce and sprinkle with fresh seasonal berries.

Three Sisters Sauté

Yield: 6

Ingredients:

2 cups zucchini & yellow or baby summer squashes

1/2 cup heirloom bean variety, cooked

1 cup fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped

1 cup whole corn kernels, if using frozen/thaw & drain

canola/olive oil, for sauté

1 tbsp. fresh sage leaves, chiffonade for garnish

Description:

Use with sage pesto recipe

Directions:

If using zucchini and yellow summer squash, prepare on a mandoline or with a box shredder using only the skin so that it looks like pasta.

If using baby squashes. Use whole if very small, or half if larger.

Use two or three varieties of beans: anasazi, appaloosa, black, butterscotch calypso, or chestnut limas.

Preparation:

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat just a bit of oil

Add corn, then cooked beans, then squash, then tomatoes tossing quickly. Do not overcook squash.

Add 1 heaping tablespoon of sage pesto. Toss and serve immediately.

Garnish with a chiffonade of sage leaves

Sage Pesto

Ingredients:

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup garlic cloves, chopped

2 cup fresh sage leaves, firmly packed

1/2 cup parsley leaves

1 cup pine nuts/ piñons, dry roasted in a skillet or on a sheet pan

1 whole juice of lemon

Description:

For Three Sisters Sauté.

Directions:

Careful, they are very oily and burn quickly. Put all together in blender and add oil to achieve proper “pesto” consistency.

Three sisters and some friends salad

(quinoa salad with corn, beans and squash)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients:

1 cup/8 oz cooked quinoa

1/2 cup/4 oz fresh green zucchini, unpeeled, 1/4 inch dice

1/2 cup/4 oz fresh yellow squash, unpeeled, 1/4 inch dice

1/4 cup/2 oz cooked black beans

1/4 cup/2 oz frozen whole kernel corn, thawed and well drained

3 Tblsp fresh cilantro, chopped

1/2 tsp. fresh onion, minced

1/2 tsp. red bell pepper, 1/4 inch dice

1/2 tsp. fresh garlic, minced

1/4 tsp. dry red chili pepper flakes

1/4 tsp. dry ground coriander

1/8 tsp. sea salt

Vinaigrette:

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp. fresh lime juice

Combine all of first group, toss with vinaigrette and chill.

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About dovalpage

Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in Taos, New Mexico. She has a Ph.D. in Spanish literature and teaches at UNM Taos. She also freelances for Taos News, Profile, Hispanic Executive and other publications. A bilingual author, she has published eight novels, six in Spanish and two in English, two collections of short stories in Spanish and one in English. Her English-language novels are A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010). Her collection of short stories The Astral Plane, Stories of Cuba, the Southwest and Beyond was published by the University of New Orleans Press in 2012. In her native Spanish she has authored the novels Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana, Anagrama, 2006, a runner-up for the Herralde Award in Spain), El difunto Fidel (The late Fidel, Renacimiento, 2011, that won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009), Posesas de La Habana (Haunted Ladies of Havana, PurePlay Press, 2004), La Regenta en La Habana (Edebe Group, Spain, 2012,) Orfeo en el Caribe(Atmósfera Literaria, Spain, 2013) and El retorno de la expatriada (The expat’s return, Egales, Spain, 2014). Her short novel Las Muertas de la West Mesa (The West Mesa Murders, based on a real event) is currently being published in serialized format by Taos News.
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