On a recent trip to Minneapolis, we had the opportunity to have lunch at Owamni, named James Beard Foundation – Best New Restaurant in America for 2022. If you’ve been following along at home you might remember our Land Acknowledgment post where we lauded Chef Sean Sherman as one of the most compelling voices in the growing field of Indigenous cuisine. His TED Talk remains one of my favorite by a chef and his recipes featured in the New York Times gives you a reasonable feel for the direction the menu takes at Owamni. A very thorough and fascinating piece in the New Yorker covers Chef Sherman’s journey to Owamni, as well as the critical contributions of co-owner Dana Thompson. I highly recommend taking the time for a complete read. Go ahead, we can wait.
The menu at Owamni features indigenous ingredients and preparations from the Smoked Root Tea through to the Blue Bread Pudding. We opened with the Smoked Red Cliff Lake Trout, which was served on a Tepary bean spread with corn tostadas and dots of wojapi (an Indigenous berry sauce).
The Red Cliff Fish Company in Bayfield is operated by the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and anything off the Great Lakes is right in our wheelhouse. The poached beans were pureed into a fairly thick base and the Tepary varietal is traced to pre-Columbian times, growing in the arid conditions from Arizona to Mexico, so not quite Great Lakes. Worth noting here – most of the ingredients and many of the preparations at Owamni are based on Indigenous traditions, but traditions from through out the land we now call North America. The folks at Owamni are exploring the cuisines from a specific cultural lens, rather than using the geographic lens we use here at Great Lakes Cuisine. It’s the reason we would not consider Owamni a “Great Lakes” restaurant, but it certainly a fantastic source of inspiration.
We felt this dish was a great candidate for re-creation, fitting it to our approach here at Great Lakes Cuisine. We elected to go with a smoked Lake Superior whitefish which was available from the local fish monger, though I very much hope to stop into Red Cliffs Fish Co. when next in Bayfield. We found another pre-Columbian varietal, Mayocoba beans grown organically by Doudlah Farms , located in south-central Wisconsin, for our bean puree and were fortunate to have some pickled wild leeks (ramps) to add to the preparation. Our wojapi is a combination of blueberry, blackberries, and cranberry juice, but if you really want to get into a preparation, we suggest heading over to one of our regular favorites, Forager Chef, for his version featuring the traditional wild chokecherry and native timpsila as the thickening agent. We endeavored to make this an approachable adaptation, but it likely will require prepping items one day in advance and then finishing the dish the day of service.
Smoked Whitefish with Bean Puree
- 1/2 lb Lake Superior Whitefish
- 1/4 cup maple sugar
- 1 Tbs salt
- 1 cup dried Mayocoba beans or other white bean (or 1 15 oz. can white beans)
- 1 Tbs neutral oil (we prefer sunflower oil, but canola will be just fine)
- 2 medium shallots (see comment below)
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1/2 cup pure cranberry juice
- 1/2 cup blueberries
- 1/2 cup blackberries
- Maple sugar to taste
- 6 Corn tostadas
- 1 cup micro-greens or sprouts (we featured sunflower sprouts)
Coat the whitefish in a mixture of 1/4 cup maple sugar and salt. Refrigerate 12 hours or overnight. Prepare a grill to 250 degrees, push coals to side and top with applewood chips. Smoke fish at gently for 30-45 minutes until cooked through and slightly firm. It will firm up further when allowed to cool in the refrigerator for several hours.
Soak the dried beans overnight in 3 cups water, then drain. If using canned, no need to soak and you will decrease the cook time. Dice the shallots. We happened to have pickled wild leeks (ramps) from last season which I’d recommend, but shallots will substitute nicely here. In a large stock pot, heat 1 Tbs oil until very hot and then add shallots and thyme. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened and starting to take on a bit caramel color, then add the broth and the beans. Cook until completely soft, which may take 30 minutes with canned and maybe an hour or longer for the dried beans. Allow to cool then strain but retain the cooking liquid. Place the beans into a food processor and puree, adding the minimum cooking liquid needed to fully puree the beans. Refrigerate.
In a small sauce pan, heat the cranberry juice, blueberries and blackberries until boiling, then reduce to a rapid simmer. We call for pure cranberry juice, which can be expensive, but stays true to the Indigenous approach. If you are using a cranberry juice that is an apple juice base, you may not need any additional sugar. Cook until the fruit has broken down, then strain and retain all the liquid. Return the liquid to the saucepan and reduce until it the consistency of thick syrup. Discard the blackberry seeds. Add maple syrup as desired, but we recommend thinking of this like a balsamic reduction, not a “berry sauce” in a more European sense, so staying a bit sour is preferred here for the contrast with the other rich, earthy flavors.
Here is our plating where we went with more greens and more tostadas then the original because we found we needed more for all the Great Lakes go-go-goodness. The use of maple sugar in smoking the whitefish adds a very subtle extra note. The extra fixings then made a re-appearance a day later as part of a cheese plate/dinner, served here with sourdough rye from Madison Sourdough.
If you dying to know the rest of the meal at Owamni, we’re happy to share. There was plenty here for future inspiration:
Truly a one-of-kind meal and ample inspiration for future dishes. The menu changes seasonally and we will look forward to future visits for more inspiration yet to come.