Cooking Together

Cooking Together: Three Sisters Winter Bowls

With Corn, Beans, and Squash

By Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff 

The celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States supposedly started with Native Americans and Europeans sharing food at a harvest celebration. However, many people today do not realize the important role played by the Native Americans in cultivating many crops such as squash, corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and berries and sharing this knowledge with the pilgrims. It should be acknowledged that these farming lessons most likely insured the newcomers’ survival.

Native people exercised farming traditions – which we now know as sustainable agriculture – to ensure plenty for the generations to come. They had a great understanding of the land and soil health. They knew the complex interrelationship between food and the climate, and their farming methods reflected that. One farming practice, for example, was planting the “three sisters” or three complementary vegetables ­– corn, squash, and beans – with the ecology of land and water in mind. In this system, the corn supports the beanstalks, the squash leaves provide shade to the soil and their edges deter some pests, and the beans help the process of converting nitrogen for the soil’s nourishment.

In addition to being grown interdependently, corn, beans, and squash complement one another nutritionally as well. Corn provides complex carbohydrates, beans provide protein, and the squash provides vitamin A and potassium.

I was attracted to the story of “three sisters,” as in my family we, three sisters, have always supported one another just like the corn, beans, and squash. That is why I adopted a few recipes using the “three sisters” theme; such as a baked casserole made with layers of these three ingredients, a soup of cooked and pureed squash and corn with lots of cooked beans, and these elegant squash “bowls” stuffed with cooked innards of squash, corn, and beans.


1 each: small butternut, kabocha, and pie pumpkin (to obtain 6 bowls when cut into halves)

4 – 5 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄2 cup onion, chopped finely
12 to 15 thin strips of red or green bell pepper
1 ½ to 2 cups corn kernels, freshly scraped or frozen and thawed
1 ½ to  2 cups kidney beans or pinto beans, freshly cooked or canned after draining completely
1 teaspoon fresh oregano or marjoram minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Optional: 1⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese or a vegan alternative or chopped  nuts for topping

                  Fresh cilantro leaves or parsley, chopped

                  Hot sauce or freshly made chutney to serve along

This is a three steps recipe. First, you will cut the squashes in halves, remove the seeds, and discard them and cook the empty “bowls.” Next, you will carve out the innards from each bowl, cut them into small pieces and mix them with other ingredients, stir fry them and stuff them in the bowls.  Lastly, you will bake the stuffed bowls. All three steps can be done separately. For the initial cooking of bowls, steaming them is the best as you can better control the texture of the cooked squash than if you bake them for this step. Because in this step, you need to make sure that while the innards of the squash are fully cooked, the walls of the “bowls” remain intact.

First, using a sharp, serrated knife, cut the squashes into halves. This is the only difficult part of this recipe. The small knife sold during Halloween season to cut the pumpkin for jack-o-lantern comes in handy for this task. Remove and discard the thick fibers and seeds from squash halves and rinse the bowls. Arrange the squash halves in a vegetable steamer with the open sides down. If necessary, cook them in two (or more) batches so that they are now crowded. Place the steamer basket in a large, Dutch oven-type pot or a wok with a tight-fitting lid. Place 1 to 1½ cups of water in the pot or the wok and steam the squash for about 20 minutes or until the inner pulp is cooked but the shells are still intact. Some squashes will take longer to cook than others, so check each of them after the first 12-15 minutes to be sure they are not overdone to a point that the walls are too soft and that they are cooked enough. Take the cooked shells out, one by one.

Transfer the cooked squash onto a platter and allow them to cool for half an hour or longer. Then scoop out the inner flesh with a tablespoon or a small knife, being careful to leave some meal attached to the shell to protect them. Some of the innards may be mushy or fibrous but that is ok.   Chop the squash innards into small pieces and collect them in a large mixing bowl. Set it aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a frying pan, heat 3 to 4 tablespoons of oil and sauté́ the onion for several minutes until they are limp. Add the bell pepper strips and stir-fry for a few minutes. Add the cooked squash, corn and beans, and stir-fry for 5 minutes. Add salt, pepper, oregano, or marjoram and stir to mix everything. Transfer the sauteed vegetables back to the mixing bowl and set them aside.

Rub some oil on the inner walls of the squash shells, and some on the outer surface. Stuff the shells with the cooked vegetable mixture. Lightly oil the bottom of two shallow casserole dishes or cookie sheets and add a small amount of water (to present sticking) and arrange the stuffed “bowls” in them. Bake the bowls for 30 minutes (or longer), until they turn golden brown on the edges. Take out the bowls from the oven and arrange them on a serving platter.

Right before serving, top the bowls with the optional cheese, the vegan “cheese” or nuts. Garnish with a few cilantro or parsley leaves. For a dinner, serve one “bowl” to each diner, along with a moist dish such as a salad or soup. You can also pass a cup of spiced chutney or a hot sauce, for those who like it spicier. For a holiday feast that features many dishes, cut the half squashes into quarters, and serve one piece to each person. Instruct the diners that after finishing what’s in the bowls they can scoop out some flesh that is attached to the walls and leave the skin (rind) behind.

Makes approximately 12 servings


Recipe © Shanta Nimbark  Sacharoff, 2021

Shanta is a Sunset District resident and the author of “Cooking Together” and “Flavors of India,” both available at Other Avenues Food Co-op., Green Apple Book Store, Rainbow Grocery Co-op, and at local bookstores. Shanta writes recipes and articles on food and teaches cooking classes. You can  view Shanta’s recipe videos by clicking Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff’s YouTube videos. 

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