Food for the Love of the Land
Laughing Wolf Farm, of Mancos, Colorado, has been cultivating Mesa Verde Country’s indigenous foods for four years now, under the stewardship of conservationist-turned-farmer Ms. Lee-Ann Hill. Lee-Ann explains that her career and study of sustainable landscapes and water conservation was a natural entree into ecological, highly localized agriculture. But to hear her describe what she does now, and why, is more like art than science. In short, it’s a bit of both.
To understand her story, it’s important to know the sustainable farming vocabulary. When describing a crop, the word traditional means that the plant species is a cultivar that is many hundreds of years old and was grown by an indigenous community. A good example of a traditional crop that has recently regained popularity is Quinoa, an ancient grain from the Andes. In Mesa Verde Country, there are many traditional varieties of corn, beans and squash that are still available.
An heirloom crop is at least 60 years old, and refers to edible plant varieties that are genetically distinct from commercial varieties. Heirloom and heritage are often used interchangeably. Both heirloom and heritage crops have unique colors, textures, and tastes that differentiate them from factory-farmed industrial produce. Heirloom plants have generally been passed down through families that saved seeds through generations, or they came from seed banks and now are found in seed libraries and through heirloom seed companies.
“The best way to save a seed is to grow it. Saving seeds is preserving memory of place,” says Lee-Ann. “These traditional crops take just what they need in terms of water and soil nutrients and are very compatible to the land. They’re my favorite.”
Lee-Ann explains that ancient corn, beans and squash are adapted to the dry climate of southwest Colorado. In her eyes, these native centuries-old traditional foods have a connection to both the history and the landscape. “Southwest food is vibrant. It’s still close to Pueblo tradition and growing it offers a connection to a Mesa Verde traditional farm and a traditional form of agriculture.”
Not only does Lee-Ann grow these crops for a half dozen local restaurants, farmers markets and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) weekly farm shares program, she is also actively involved in the ancient tradition of seed saving. Laughing Wolf Farm grows Purple Hopi Beans, Colorado River Beans, Zuni Tomatillos, Navajo Pumpkins, Anasazi Sweet Corn, Hopi Blue Corn and her favorite: Tohono O’odham Ha:ll (community squash), which is a type of winter squash. Lee-Ann pulls back water every year on these plantings, so the seeds continue to adapt to drought-like conditions and they hold that genetic information. She is also trying heritage grain varieties through Rocky Mountain Heritage Wheat Trials and the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.
“Turkey Red Winter Wheat grows almost entirely from winter precipitation,” says Lee-Ann. “We’re testing these varieties with an eye on water conservation, using primarily available water, and never more than is needed.” The group has 30 to 40 wheat varieties that are being trialed throughout the Rocky Mountain West.
Laughing Wolf Farm grows more conventional crops as well, like cucumbers, beets, rainbow chard, spinach and green beans. You’ll find them all on artfully prepared plates at numerous regional eateries. In fact, the support of restaurateurs has been essential to Laughing Wolf Farm’s success.
“There are some wonderful local chefs who are incorporating Four Corners foods,” says Lee-Ann. “There’s a niche there that can be so exciting to the customer, the grower and the restaurant.” She particularly admires Chef Jason Blankenship of Olio, a Mancos restaurant that combines food, wine and art. Some of his inventive dishes include Local Mangalitsa Pork Loin Chop on Hatch Cheddar Posole with Olathe Corn Salsa, Sauteed Branzino on Mushroom Stuffed Local Ronde de Nice Squash with Basil Butter and Grilled Blue Cobia on Roasted Local Cauliflower Puree with Grilled Palisade Peach Relish. Lee-Ann also gives a nod to The Farm Bistro of Cortez. “They established this local food movement,” says Lee-Ann. “They’ve been so supportive.”
Here are two of Lee-Ann’s favorite recipes, which call for fresh produce from the late summer and early fall harvest in Mesa Verde Country.
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1 c. finely chopped onion
1 t. minced garlic
2 c. cubed yellow summer squash
2 c. cubed green zucchini squash
2 c. cubed Calabacita squash (striped squash)
1/2 c. thinly sliced green onions
1 c. corn (fresh is best)
1/2 c. roasted, chopped green chile, hot or mild
1 t. salt, to taste
1/2 c. seeded and diced ripe tomato
1/3 c. coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Sauté onion for about two minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking for two minutes, stirring frequently. Add squash and cook for four minutes. Add green onions, corn and chile, and cook for two minutes. Season with salt and add tomato and cilantro. Cook for two minutes and serve.
Ha:l – O’odham Squash
This has been grown by the Tohono O’odham Native Americans for generations. It is planted with great ceremony, songs and blessings in the spring before the summer rains, and harvested from early summer to late fall. The flowers, seeds, immature and mature fruit are all edible and are important and delicious foods in both summer and winter months. The light green, sometimes striped, baby summer squash is called ha:l ma:mad– literally squash children. These immature squash are much like a zucchini but with a denser texture, firmer exterior and many fewer seeds. Ha:l ma:mad is eaten boiled, steamed or fried. When the squash is left to mature on the vine, it grows as large as 40 pounds or more, develops a hard outer shell and is referred to as ha:l. These large squash have a starchy texture and mild flavor and, once harvested, are eaten boiled or steamed. Ha:l is also peeled, sliced and sun dried for storage. The sun dried squash spirals and pieces are stored and boiled during winter months when fresh food is scarce.
Steamed ha:l, the most traditional preparation, has a starchy texture and mild, slightly sweet flavor. To prepare, cut the squash from the neck into thick rounds and then into chunks, about the same size. Clean the seeds and any strings out of the squash body. Cut into similar sized chunks. Do not peel. In a large pot with a tight fitting lid, place squash chunks on a steamer or rack and stack them up until they reach about 2 inches from the top. Add about 2 inches of water. Cover. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. When the water begins to boil vigorously and steam escapes from the top, remove cover and fit a piece of tin foil tightly over the top of the pan. Cover again. If the water starts to dry out, add more just a little bit at a time. Cook until squash is soft but not mushy or watery (approximately one hour), it should peel right off the rind. Remove from heat and take the squash out of the pot immediately so it won’t keep cooking. Line cooked squash pieces on a platter or plate, skin side down, to cool. Remove and discard rind.
This is a very easy way to prepare squash. Baking gives it extra sweetness, and if you don’t eat it all, it freezes beautifully.
Cut the squash in half lengthwise. The skin is tough so you may need to use a hatchet or heavy knife. Scoop out seeds. Place squash, cut side down, on a baking or cookie sheet, pan or broiler pan. Do not add water. Bake at 375 degrees until soft, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 25 minutes. Cool and scoop the cooked squash out of the skin. Discard the skin. Mash and eat plain, or with butter. A big squash will yield about 10 cups.
Saguaro Syrup Glazed Tohono O’odham Squash
2 cups baked, mashed Tohono O’odham or butternut squash
2 tbsp melted butter
1/8 cup saguaro syrup
Place mashed squash in a buttered/oiled 8”x11” pan. Combine melted butter and saguaro syrup. Brush over squash. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until squash is heated through and the glaze is bubbly.
Purple Hopi Beans
Navajo Robin’s Egg Blue Corn