Three Sisters Stew (and Garden)

Winter Squashes

Winter Squashes

By Cat, October 2007 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons (1))

This recipe came to me from an organics delivery service in Bigfork.  The recipe was preceded by an interesting story about Native American agriculture that we could learn from today, a story that is fun to share with children – and perhaps help them create a Three Sisters Garden.

See also: 1. Vegetarian & Bean Menu; 2. Casseroles and One-Dish Meals Menu; 3. Soups Menu 

Three Sisters Garden

(Photos, right, from Wikimedia Commons (2,3))

Corn Varieties

Corn Varieties

“Much of Native American agriculture and cuisine was based on corn, beans, and squash, which the Indians called “three sisters of life.”  They planted seeds for these three vegetables all together in a ‘hill’ rather than in a row.  Lescarbot, a French explorer, noted in 1608 that the Indians of Maine, like those of Virginia and Florida, plant their corn in hills, ‘and between the kernels of corn they plant beans marked with various colors, which are very delicate:  these because they are not so high as the corn, grow very well among it.’

Dry Bean Diversity

Dry Bean Diversity

The reason corn and beans grow so well together is that legumes, such as beans, have nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their root nodules.  These bacteria form a symbiotic relationship with legumes and together they enrich the soil and act as a natural fertilizer.  The ‘fixed’ nitrogen then becomes available for other plants (the corn and squash) to absorb and use to form proteins, which can then be spread throughout the food chain and to us in this simple delicious recipe for stew.”

To this I would add that in turn, the squash adds ground-hugging shade, to cool the roots of the corn and beans, and keep weeds at bay.  Thus the three plants grow harmoniously together, each supporting the needs of the other two.

For more information on creating a Three Sisters Garden, see:

  • Garden Web: Three Sisters Garden (4)
  • Desertification blog: Three Sisters Gardens: (5)
  • Native Tech: Planting a Three Sisters Garden (6)

From this I glean that the planting mound should be about 12″ high (flat on top), and between 18″ (support one corn stalk) to 8′ in diameter (support 4-6 corn stalks).  Plant corn in center (space about 6″ apart in a ring), beans about 6″ away from corn, and squash 12″ outside the beans.  Start with 4 – 7 corn, 6 – 12 pole beans/peas, and 6 – 7 squash; later thin to 1 – 3 corn, 1 – 3 bean, and 1 – 3 squash.  Corn is planted first; add beans when corn is 4 – 10″ high; add squash 1 – 2 weeks after beans, when they have sprouted.  Keep watered.  May have to train beans to climb the corn.

Note that this works best if you have a whole row of Three Sisters, because corn likes company.

Three Sisters Stew

Prep time for this recipe is about 30 minutes.  Cooking time is 30 minutes. Start the beans the day before, as they need to soak overnight (12 hours).

Ingredients & Equipment:

  • Beans
  • ½ pound dried beans (any kind)
  • warm filtered water
  • lemon juice (1 Tbsp per quart water)
  • about 2 cups filtered water or chicken stock
  • ½ medium onion, chopped
  • Stew
  • 3 pounds carnival or butternut squash (approximately)
  • ½ medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 14-oz can)
  • 1½ cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 – 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds (whole or ground)
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1½ tsp unrefined sea salt
  • 2 tsp dried oregano (or 4 tsp fresh oregano leaves)
  • Equipment
  • 3-quart saucier
  • stock pot


  1. Prep Beans: Cover beans with warm water.  Stir in lemon juice and leave in a warm place overnight (12 hours, minimum).  The longer they soak, the shorter the cooking time.  Check after a few hours and add more water as necessary.
  2. Drain beans, rinse and put in saucier or stock pot along fresh water (or chicken stock) to cover by 2 inches.  Boil for 10 minutes (very important, to ensure soft beans) and skim.
  3. Add chopped onion.  Simmer gently until beans are tender, 1 – 3 hours.  Add more water as needed to keep beans covered.
  4. Stew: While beans are cooking, remove skin from squash, scoop out seeds, and discard.  Cut the squash meat into chunks.
  5. Chop onion and mince garlic.
  6. In large stock pot, quickly toast oregano, cumin and cinnamon for 30 seconds.  Add oil, onion, salt and garlic; saute until onions are soft, about 5 minutes.
  7. Add cooked beans and their liquid, squash pieces, tomatoes, corn and chili powder.
  8. Cook until squash is soft, about 20 minutes.  Add a little water if stew is too dry.

Assembly or Serving Suggestions

  • Garnish with grated cheese or sour cream, and chopped cilantro.
  • Serve with warm cornbread and butter


  1. Wikimedia Commons – corn photo (
  2. Wikimedia Commons – squash photo (
  3. Wikimedia Commons – dry-beans photo (
  4. Garden Web:
  5. Desertification blog:
  6. Native Tech:

About Cat

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