Mother’s Day is here and wife Jan has requested Indian tacos—to be clear American Indian. Indian tacos are most simply served as pinto beans on fry bread. Variations on the basic taco depends on tribe, available ingredients, and imagination.
Note: My family has multiple food preferences and avoidances. To please everyone, I am setting this dinner up as a “taco bar,” with many different salsas, so that my family can pick the toppings they wish. From front to back: blue corn chips; raw fresh tomatoes; salsa fresca; raw onions; corn and mango salsa; guacamole; hot chili and onion salsa (from this recipe); cheddar cheese; Cal col roja en escabeche; venison pinto beans; Indian fry bread (variation from this recipe); and Indian fry bread (original recipe). Not shown fresh cilantro.
Indian fry bread was created in 1864 with the supplies that the U.S. government gave the Navaho on the forced relocation of the “Long Walk.” Since then, it has been picked up by many other tribes and is a staple at Native American powwows. The original recipe was flour, sugar, salt and baking powder, but today the sugar is usually left out—in favor of sweet toppings. Possible additions to the dough are mayonnaise, yogurt, or soured milk. Popular toppings are honey, powdered sugar, beans, and taco fillings.
Note: Today, I was experimenting with using yogurt to leaven my fry bread. While I left it for several hours it never really expanded very much. Although the flavor was delicious this left me with very small fry breads. I quickly whipped up a batch with baking powder and had better results. Compare the breads on the right with those on the left above.
Daughter Miriam is “off” onions and beans made without these aromatics is a bit boring. Last week, I made venison hand pies and I had some meat left over. Frying the meat and then cooking it into the beans seemed like a reasonable—and Native American—combination to boost the flavor.
Miriam is also “off” chilies—they taste unpleasantly metallic to her at the moment. For my diners who cannot imagine beans without chili and onions, I am planning to sauté these as a separate add-in side dish. Other toppings I am including are: blue corn chips, fresh cilantro, corn and mango salsa (just for daughter Miriam), grated cheddar cheese (what Jan was served on the Hopi reservation), quick guacamole, raw onions, pickled red cabbage (Jan’s favorate), salsa fresca (my favorite), and fresh tomatoes.
Karl’s Indian Taco Bar
2 cups pinto beans, uncooked
1 Tbs. Kosher salt
1 Tbs. ghee
⅔ lb. venison, ground or ground beef
½ cup fresh cilantro stems, minced
2 cups AP flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
½ cup Greek yogurt
¾ cup warm water
2-3 cups vegetable oil (for frying)
Hot Chili Onion Salsa
2 Tbs. ghee
1 cup yellow onion, thinly sliced pole to pole
2 Anaheim chilies, sliced thinly
Pinch Kosher salt
large heavy bottomed pot
wire rack and drain pan
heavy bottomed skillet
1. The night before making these beans sort and wash the dried beans.
Tip: If you wish to speed up making this dish you can start with a 29 oz. can of pinto beans.
2. Put the beans in a large pot and cover them with 8 cups of water.
3. Stir in one tablespoon of salt.
Tip: If I am making refried beans, I reduce the amount of salt in my soaking water and then Iuse the soaking water as my cooking liquid. With pinto beans, much of the color gets leached out of the bean skins and is then poured down the drain. This leaves you with a grey bean dish. For this dish I am browning venison and the meaty fond will replace the bean color lost down the sink.
Note: Besides seasoning the beans, the sodium salt in the soaking water replaces some of the calcium and magnesium in the bean skins. This exchange makes the skins more flexible and allows the skins to expand during cooking—as opposed to bursting open and releasing lots of bean starch into the stew.
4. Six to seven hours before dinner, mix your frybread dough.
5. Mix all of the dry ingredients and then thoroughly stir in the yogurt and water.
6. Cover the dough with a damp towel and set it in a warm place to leaven.
7. Three to four hours before dinner, heat the ghee in a large Dutch oven, over a medium heat.
Tip: While I frequently use corn oil in Southwestern dishes, today I wanted the added richness of butter.
Note: Venison is a very lean meat and need a bit of additional grease in the pan.
8. Fry the ground venison until well browned on both sides.
Note: The venison I bought came in three 1/3 pound patties—I had two left for this dish. It your meat is loose, form it into a large patty before you fry it. This is a America’s Test Kitchen trick that allows you to get plenty of the flavorful Maillard reaction without turning all of your meat into little rocks of dried out burger.
9. Transfer the venison patty to a plate to cool.
Tip: When the meat is cool enough to handle break it into small bits.
10. Sauté the cilantro stems for one minute.
11. Deglaze the pan with the water and add the pinto beans to the pot.
12. Add 6 cups of water to the pot and stir in the venison bits.
13. Bring the pot to a boil.
14. Put the lid on the pot and set it into a 350º F oven.
Tip: You may cook the beans on a stove top, but I prefer the all-around heat of the oven. The beans cook more evenly and there is less chance of the beans scorching on the bottom of the pot.
15. After one hour, remove the lid and stir the beans once.
Tip: You want to mix the beans up, but you do not want to mash them by stirring them too violently.
16. Continue baking the beans, uncovered, for another 1-1½ hours.
Tip: You want these beans to be fairly dry, so that they do not make the fry bread soggy.
Note: Continue baking until the beans are tender and the stew is to your preferred consistency.
17. While the beans are cooking, prepare your chilies and onions to be ready for frying during the last minutes.
18. Heat 2-3 cups of vegetable oil in a deep heavy bottomed skillet.
Tip: You should heat your oil to 350º F.
Note: Set a wire rack in a shallow lipped baking sheet lined with paper towels. When you remove the frybread from the oil you will need someplace to put them where they can drain away any excess oil.
19. Divide your dough into eight equal pieces.
20. On a well floured board hand stretch or roll each ball into a 7 inch disk.
Tip: Make a small slice in the middle of the disk so that the dough can vent the steam that is created underneath and which prevents it from puffing up in the middle when you first put it into the oil.
21. Place each dough disk into the hot oil and fry them until golden brown on both sides, about 1-2 minutes per side.
Tip: I found it useful to use a pair of tongs—as well as one hand—to place the dough into the oil. The hot oil tends to splash a bit when you let the last edge drop into the oil and you want your bare hands as far away as possible.
22. Remove the fry bread to the drain rack and continue frying until you are done with all of the dough balls.
23. Heat two tablespoons of ghee, over medium high heat, in a skillet and sauté the onions and chilies with the salt until soft, about 5-7 minutes.
24. Transfer the chilies to a serving bowl and the fry bread to a serving plate.
25. Place the bean pot on the tables and set side dishes of your preferred toppings around it.
Note: Diners place a fry bread on their plates, add some beans on top and cover the beans with your toppings.