Three Sisters Salad
- This recipe features the three sisters of Native American agriculture: corn, beans, and squash.
- This dish is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals essential for healthy growth and development.
- Three Sisters Salad contains 100% whole plant foods.
This heart-healthy recipe is centered on corn, beans, and squash — the infamous Three Sisters of traditional Native American agriculture.
[Scroll to bottom if you just want the recipe].
Celebrating the 3 Sisters Who Grow Cooperatively
The three sisters crops are traditionally planted together because of the way they cooperate in supporting each other. The tall corn stalks provide a pole for running beans to climb, the big fanlike leaves of the squash shade the ground conserving moisture for all the plants in the hottest driest times, and the beans fix nitrogen in the soil acting as a living fertilizer helping its neighboring plants to get a bigger dose of nutrition. All three sisters give something to the others, and all receive assistance. This early form of what today is called companion planting or guilds.
The three sisters were a primary focus of the 1917 book Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden  by Gilbert Livingston Wilson which described traditional agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians as practiced by one woman. Buffalo Bird Woman and her family grew large gardens of corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers and their practices and recipes are included in the book. After reading about the three sisters in detail here and while studying permaculture I, of course, wanted to grow them for myself.
I have planted the three sisters together when I was blessed to have a spot of Earth to garden on. Through their cooperation these plants teach the gardener an important lesson about interdependence. To the Iroquois the three sisters are “sustainers of life,” special gifts from the Creator. There are many Indian legends which say the sisters should never be apart – they are planted together, grow together, are eaten together and are celebrated together. The Three Sisters Salad is one way to eat and celebrate the three sisters together.
Sister #1: Corn
Corn is still one of the most important crops in America but the wisdom of the three sisters companion planting has been largely replaced by massive fields of corn grown on an industrial scale.
Much of the corn today is also genetically modified which, given the lack of science around the safety of GMOs and the various health concerns (like GMO corn that causes sterility ), it is wise for the health-conscious consumer to avoid non-organic corn. For this recipe I recommend organic corn. The best corn is always the fresh corn from your own three sisters garden, but next best is to use fresh locally-grown corn from the market.
Frozen and canned corn will also work fine and I used frozen corn when I made the three salad variations shared here.
Sister #2: Beans
There are so many kinds of beans and any of them would work great in this recipe. The great thing about Three Sisters Salad is you can use ANY type of bean you like and you can experiment with different beans to enjoy many variations in color and flavor. Soak your dry beans overnight and cook them in a slow-cooker or stove top or used canned beans for the convenience. Today a can of organic canned beans can be purchased for under $1 meaning you don’t really save that much money cooking bulk dry beans .
The slight extra expense of canned beans is worth it for me as a working single mom because it saves me time and prevents waste if I happen to cook too many beans or burn the beans because I’m trying to cook, blog, fold laundry, and parent at the same time. For the three variations of Three Sisters Salad I shared here I used canned beans. My favorites are black beans, garbanzo beans, or kidney beans for this recipe.
Sister #3: Squash
Squash comes in so many delicious and nutrient-packed variations and most any of them could work for this salad.
There are summer squashes with their soft flesh which are super easy to cut up and almost melt in the mouth, and then there are winter squashes with their tough exterior which take muscle to break into and must be baked to yield the soft, creamy, rich flesh. Either type of squash will work. I uses zucchini for the salad in the feature photo and baked butternut squash for the salad pictured below. Both are super tasty and nutritious salads and using different squashes allows you to sample a variety of flavor combinations.
You can also experiment with how much of each ingredient you add to this basic Three Sisters Salad recipe depending on your hunger and nutrition needs. If you are in the mood for a hearty-filling meal then you might want to use more beans and used baked winter squash or add advocado to the mix. If you are in the mood for a lighter salad, use less beans, fresh summer squash, and more greens like the Three Sisters Salad I made pictured below.
However you mix and toss it, The Three Sisters Salad should provide you with a perfect cocktail of nutrients from plants in a satisfying tasty meal for which we have our ancestors to thank.
Healing With Plants is a holistic health education website empowering people to heal themselves at home, with plants. Look out for new whole food plant-based recipes published every week.