When the Pilgrims first landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, they had little idea of how to survive in their new environment. Disease and sickness wiped many of them out quickly; the rest faced significant hurdles, starting with the fact that they didn’t know how to grow food in the challenging local soil. At the time, farming back in Europe tended to work like this: Take a handful of seeds, toss them onto a field, and wait to see what grows, weeds and all. It was not a sophisticated system.
Contrast that with how Native Americans in the Northeast farmed. In meticulously arranged fields, they would form mounds of soil by hand. In each mound, they would plant corn, often along with a fish carcass or some other type of fertilizer. Once the corn stalks started shooting up, they’d plant beans and squash seeds in each mound as well. The beans, being climbers, would wind their way up the corn stalks, which acted as a natural trellis. The beans were also nitrogen fixers, which helped keep the soil balanced and fertile, even as the other vegetables took what they needed from it. The squash, meanwhile, would sprawl around and down the mound, shading it and acting as a built-in weed suppressant.
This trio of vegetables—corn, beans, and squash—was the foundation of many Native American diets, and they were so tightly connected to each other that they were, and remain, known as the Three Sisters.
Succotash, a vegetable stew that contains, at the very least, corn and beans, takes on a lot more significance in this light: It includes two of the Three Sisters, foods that were both nutritionally and culturally important. The third sister, squash, isn’t an essential succotash ingredient, but it’s also not an unwelcome one, nor is other indigenous American produce, like peppers.
Making succotash with these core crops is just one of the many things Native Americans taught Pilgrims in order to help them survive. In the centuries since, succotash’s popularity has spread from coast to coast; it’s a quintessentially American food, with regional variations enjoyed by communities of all backgrounds.
My version here includes corn, beans, squash, and peppers, plus a small amount of bacon, since pork fat is another traditional element of succotash. I also add some butter, since corn and butter are a perfect combo. The key with succotash, though, is to remember its history and understand the flexibility that’s built into the dish. It lends itself to interpretation and variation, as long as it has the corn and beans. You can use just those two vegetables, or add more, as I do here; you can use pork fat, or some other fat to keep it vegetarian. You can make it in any season, too, shifting from fresh summer ingredients when they’re available to shelf-stable ones (dried beans, winter squash, et cetera) when they’re not. But no matter what you choose to put into it, what really makes succotash great is taking advantage of the best ingredients you can find. As I walk you through my recipe, you’ll see what I mean.
The first step is to render some of the bacon fat. I use only a very small amount, since I don’t want the smoky flavor of the bacon to be too prominent; the sweet corn and tender beans are what I want to stand out. When the bacon is beginning to brown, I add the butter and melt it, then follow it with diced onion and minced garlic, which deepen and round out the flavor of the dish.
Once the onion and garlic have started to soften, I add the corn, along with any milk I’m able to express from the cobs with the spine of my knife. I find that the easiest way to cut corn kernels off the cob is by inverting a small bowl or other container inside a larger mixing bowl, then standing the cob on the small bowl and slicing the kernels off. The small bowl raises the cob out of the bigger bowl, reducing the likelihood you’ll smack your knife blade into the larger bowl’s rim as you slice downward. The larger bowl helps catch the kernels, which have a way of shooting off in all directions. It’s a big mess when you just do it on a cutting board.
Along with the corn, I add diced red bell peppers (orange or yellow works, too) for a light, sweet flavor. I also use a few Poblano peppers, which have a deeper, more complex flavor than basic green bell peppers, but I don’t add them to the pot just yet. Instead, I char their skins for an even deeper, smokier flavor, then rub the skins off and dice up the flesh. I set it aside until the very end, since the charring process also cooks the Poblanos; the last thing they need is extended cooking after that.
I add diced summer squash (third-sister alert!) as well, and cook everything together until tender.
The only thing left is the beans. This is an area of the recipe where you can have some fun. The easiest thing to do is tear open a bag of frozen lima beans and dump them in the pot. That’s fine—I do it, too—but there’s a lot more potential to explore. In the summertime, if you live near a good farmers market, you can often find fresh shelling beans. They’re the same beans you eventually buy dried, like navy beans, cranberry beans, and others, but still in their pods, just like peas, and with a vibrancy that’s breathtaking.
Fresh shelling beans still need to be cooked, and the process is pretty much exactly the same as for dried beans, except that there’s absolutely no need to soak them. (Dried beans sometimes don’t require soaking either.) Just put them in a pot of salted water and aromatics, and simmer them until tender. They lose a lot of their beautiful color after cooking, but it’s worth it for their tender, subtly sweet flesh.
If fresh shelling beans aren’t an option, dried beans are more than adequate; when cooked properly, they can be staggeringly good. The best approach, I think, is to add more than one kind of bean, for variety’s sake. In the photos here, I’ve included some frozen limas along with some freshly shelled red kidney beans. It gives you a much bigger payoff, in terms of flavor, color, and texture, than any one bean on its own can do. I like to add a little of the bean-cooking liquid, too, just to moisten everything up and infuse the other ingredients with a bit more bean flavor.
At the very end, I add the roasted Poblano peppers and a fresh herb, like torn basil leaves, just to pump up the aromatics a little more. Is it exactly like the succotash of centuries past? No, but then again, I’m not a Native American farmer (or even a Pilgrim), and modern conveniences make it a whole lot easier to make this dish a little fancy.