BEMIDJI — The forest can provide a feast, according to chef Sean Sherman.
Sherman, who spent his youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, grew up around wild foods. He also grew up working in restaurants, which led to becoming an executive chef at 27 in Minneapolis.
“As I grew older, I wanted to do something with Native American foods,” said Sherman, now 38. “Nobody was really doing anything with it.”
He wanted to focus on wild edibles American Indians consumed prior to the existence of Indian reservations, rather than more modern foods like frybread.
“The forest is so rich,” he said, both in the flavor profiles and the traditional food culture of Native Americans that are being lost as the wild edibles go unharvested.
On Tuesday, Sherman led a Native Foods Cooking Class in the Harmony Co-Op Community Kitchen, as part of Sustainable Tuesdays. With help from several participants, he created three dishes: a venison stew, an herb flatbread, and cakes of turkey pemmican with puffed wild rice.
He worked quickly, slicing turkey thigh meat early for the pemmican recipe, which also featured minced dried blueberries, a bit of rendered turkey fat and some minced turkey skin crisped in the fat, as well as puffed wild rice he prepared during the class.
“It was the first granola bar, in a sense,” he said of pemmican. “It’s a great energy food.
The deer shoulder meat in the stew was highlighted by burdock root and crushed juniper berries, both readily available in the wild but underutilized, he said, along with other ingredients such as squash, onions, cherries and apples, with cornmeal for thickening. Dandelion greens and roots were sprinkled liberally over the stew as Sherman guided class participants in the presentation of their plates.
While the dandelion greens he used came from Harmony, Sherman pointed out that in the summer, it only takes 15 minutes to grab a handful.
Simone Senogles, who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Caitlyn Schuchhardt of Minnesota GreenCorps hosted the Sustainable Tuesdays class.
“This month, we’re focusing on different elements of indigenous knowledge,” Schuchhardt said. “We have a bounty (of wild edible food) in our area. Nobody knows that better than indigenous folks.”
During preparations for the stew, Kurt Wayne, one of the participants, asked Sherman how finely he recommends chopping the vegetables and fruits.
“I’ve never really believed there’s just one way to do anything,” Sherman replied, noting that the pieces could be fine or chunky.
Sherman said he likes to carry baggies when hiking or hunting in the woods so he can pick up wild edibles. He would like to see people cook with wild foods rather than from cans and boxes.
“The biggest thing with these foods is the flavor, and what you can match it up with,” he said. “It’s just a matter of chopping up some meat and vegetables with the right flavor profile.”
Sherman said he is looking into some grants for his venture into Native American wild edibles and is considering writing a cookbook. He also would enjoy having his own restaurant.
“There’s only a handful of us Native American chefs out there,” he said. “The foundation is there.”
Sherman said it has been only in the past year that he decided to try to bring traditional Native American cuisine to the forefront.
“A culture without food is such a lost culture,” he said.
Sherman is currently a chef at Common Roots in Minneapolis, where 93 percent of the ingredients are local and organic.
“It was nice to fall into something that had that same values as I did,” he said, referring to the healthful local ingredients as well as the farmers and ranchers the restaurant supports.
He also does some catering with Black Sheep Chefs, the business he opened with Bemidji’s Eric Kvale, who he met while working as a chef in Montana. Sherman moved to Bemidji last spring and then back to Minneapolis in June.