Quarantine Recipes: Hank Shaw’s Three Sisters Chili - Modern Farmer

Quarantine Recipes: Hank Shaw’s Three Sisters Chili

We're asking top chefs what they're making in isolation.

Three Sisters Chili
Photography courtesy of Hank Shaw

One thing that hasn’t changed during the COVID-19 pandemic is the need to eat. Staying home has encouraged some to perfect their culinary skills while others have cracked open cookbooks for the first time.

To provide you with some kitchen inspiration, Modern Farmer is asking top chefs what they’ve been cooking while staying isolated. This week, we heard from chef Hank Shaw, who shared his recipe for his Three Sisters Chili. The James Beard Award winning author and outdoorsman has written several books about foraging and wild game, including his most recent, Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail.

Hank Shaw.

Three Sisters Chili


This is a dish that represents what I’ve been able to build for us here on our little yard in northern California—a yard that’s less than a third of an acre. Almost everything is edible, and tending to our “milpa,” as the Mexicans call their small family farms, has been a lifeline during lockdown. 

Every day there has been something to keep me busy, from planting, transplanting and weeding to thinning and processing ripe produce. 

This chili represents all of that in a bowl. The corn, beans, squash, nopales, coriander, chiles, garlic, onions, tomatoes and oregano all come from my garden. 

My mom used to make us chili when I was a kid, and it was always one of the highlights of the weekly rotation. A big pot, slowly bubbling on the stove all day long. This is not her chili, but it is inspired by it, focusing on the traditional three sisters: corn, beans and squash. 

It is a meal from home, and of home. 



  • 1 cup dried field corn
  • 2 cups beans
  • 4 nopales paddles, diced
  • 10 dried chiles, seeded and stemmed (guajillo, pasilla, New Mexican, ancho, etc.)
  • 1 cup black coffee
  • Salt
  • 1 ½ pounds ground venison or beef
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 poblano or green peppers, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons dried red pepper or cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons coriander
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 2 cups tomato puree
  • 2 tablespoons molasses or sorghum syrup
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into cubes



Simmer the field corn in salted water until reasonably tender for one hour. Cook the beans in another pot of unsalted water. You do this because once the beans hit the acidic chili, they will not soften very well. Or you can use canned beans and skip this step. If you can’t find field corn, use fresh or frozen sweet corn—if that’s the case you don’t need to cook it first. 

Put the dried chiles in a bowl and submerge them in boiling water. Cover the bowl. 

Meanwhile, salt the diced nopales well and leave in a colander to drain. 

After this hour is up, rinse the nopales very well, massaging them with your fingers to remove as much of the slime as possible. This will take a couple minutes. Turn the heat off the corn. Put the now rehydrated chiles into a blender along with the black coffee. Puree, adding a little of the chile soaking water if need be to keep the blades turning well. 

In a large, heavy pot, add the ground venison. I am assuming you are using ground meat that has fat in it. If not, you will need 2 tablespoons of the fat or oil of your choice. Brown the meat over high heat, stirring only occasionally to get some browning. It’s OK if you get browned bits on the bottom of the pot, but don’t let it blacken. 

Remove the meat and set it aside. Add the chopped onion and diced green pepper and sauté, stirring and scraping the bottom to remove the browned bits. Let this cook for 3 to 5 minutes, then add the garlic and saute it for 1 minute. 

Return the meat and any juices in the bowl back to the pot. Stir in the chili powder, cayenne, cumin, coriander and some salt. 

Pour in the pureed chile-coffee mixture, the tomato puree, the molasses, the field corn (not the sweet corn if you are using that), the nopales and the beans. Add some of the corn cooking water to thin everything out. You want your chili to look like soup now. It will cook down. 

Let this simmer gently for 1 hour or more, until the corn and beans are just about getting to where you like them. Now add the butternut squash and simmer until that’s tender, about 45 minutes. 

Serve with rice or pasta, or solo. I like to garnish this chili with green onions, cilantro and shredded cheese. 

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Otis Needleman
2 years ago

It isn’t a lockdown, it’s a house arrest, and incompetently done at that. Could have been done smartly. Lockdown for two weeks. Hot spots identified. Quarantine those areas and buffer zones, let everyone else out to live their lives, with precautions. Didn’t happen. Why? Simply power trips by a bunch of little Hitlers. Oh, the people who have imposed these house arrests on us, and the people who enforce the house arrests, NEVER miss a paycheck. So why should they care if anyone else is out of work? They don’t. We are NOT, and have never been, “all in this… Read more »