STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Mitsitam means "let's eat" in one Native American dialect, so it's a good word to learn today. Mitsitam also happens to be the name of the cafe at Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of the American Indian. NPR's Neda Ulaby talked with chefs there about its Thanksgiving carryout menu.
NEDA ULABY: Mitsitam's food is inspired by Native American ingredients. Think fire-pit roasted salmon from the Pacific Northwest, buffalo chili from the plains. Sous chef Nate Auchter says the staff begins with tribal culinary traditions from all over the Americas and gives them a gourmet spin.
Mr. NATE AUCHTER (Chef, Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe): We do different mole sauces, so right now we have a vanilla and cinnamon mole with braised chicken. And then we have a citrus and sage mole for our beef.
Mr. BRUCE BARNES (Executive Chef, Native Foods Mitsitam Cafe): Yeah, we're always pushing the bar here.
ULABY: Executive chef Bruce Barnes says the cafe first prepared an indigenous-inspired Thanksgiving meal just for museum staff, but the maple-brined turkey with oyster stuffing proved so popular, Mitsitam offered it as a carryout two years ago. Now the cafe provides such fixings as scarlet runner bean salad, blue corn bread, and more.
Mr. BARNES: In American lore - I mean, when you think about Thanksgiving, you think about the first Thanksgiving with the contributions that the Native Americans gave the first settlers. I think that just kind of adds a little bit of relevance to the takeout here.
ULABY: Of course, this takeout is not easy to get your hands on unless you live around Washington, D.C. So Barnes and Auchter whipped up some savory apple pumpkin soup in the Mitsitam kitchen. The recipe's on NPR's Web site.
(Soundbite of sizzling)
ULABY: It begins with hot oil and some onions.
Mr. AUCHTER: And some turnips.
ULABY: So right now you're stirring together the...
Mr. AUCHTER: I'm stirring together the onions and the turnips, just getting a little caramelization on them. We just want to sweat the onions, not too much color. The color comes into play where we roast the pumpkin and the squash in the oven, and the apples in the oven as well.
ULABY: You use crabapples?
Mr. AUCHTER: Yeah, crabapples, yeah.
ULABY: So tart.
Mr. AUCHTER: They are. They are. But I mean, that acidity provides a nice balance with the richness of the different squashes that we use.
ULABY: The squashes could have been blue hubbard, calabasa, or turban, but for this soup Auchter chose sweet pumpkin and buttercup.
Mr. AUCHTER: Squash is a staple of Native American cooking. You know, you have the three sisters: beans, corn, and squash.
ULABY: Can you tell me, did the Native Americas actually eat pumpkin soup?
Mr. AUCHTER: Actually probably not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ULABY: Mitsitam executive chef Bruce Barnes says what they did do was roast squash whole in the fire and scoop out the luscious innards. Sous chef Nate Auchter went for a similar effect by pureeing the soup in a blender.
(Soundbite of blender)
ULABY: The result is a thick, smooth, mustard-colored soup, brightened by specs of apple, sage, chervil, and thyme.
Mr. BARNES: In keeping with the native foods, we're going to be finishing the soup with a little bit of hazelnut oil and then garnishing it with a little bit of saguaro cactus seed on top.
Mr. AUCHTER: These cactus seeds definitely have a sweet flavor to them.
ULABY: Now what are they? I've never seen these before.
Mr. AUCHTER: This is saguaro cactus seeds from the Tohono O'odham tribe in the Southwest.
Mr. BARNES: They're very similar in taste and texture to almost a poppy seed.
ULABY: It is really fabulous. Wow.
Mr. BARNES: We like to play with real products. And you'd be surprised that the people actually will come in here and will experiment and will eat these products.
Mr. AUCHTER: The last time we had frog legs on the menu, we were selling about 50 pounds a week.
ULABY: Apparently, woodland tribes are as keen on frog legs as the French. After Thanksgiving, Bruce Barnes has big plans for the South America part of the menu.
Mr. BARNES: We're actually getting ready to experiment with cuyo.
ULABY: Which is what?
Mr. BARNES: Which is a guinea pig. Which is a staple of the people of Ecuador and of El Salvador and Peru. A lot of people have the reaction that you just had, but it's a main staple, a main ingredient that they use in their culture.
Mr. AUCHTER: People come here and they may reach outside their safety zone and say, hey, I want to be a part of the past, I want to be a part of this tradition, I want to be a part of it, and I want to see what it tastes like.
ULABY: I like to think of myself as an open-minded eater, but I think I'm going to stick to the pumpkin soup.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ULABY: Leave the guinea pig...
Mr. BARNES: The cuyo? Oh, my.
ULABY: This Mitsitam cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian is the only Zagat-rated cafe in the Smithsonian Institution. It's one of D.C.'s best kept culinary secrets, or it was. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.