Chef Lidia Bastianich celebrates Navajo milestone in Utah in PBS series
Television • Series features a house blessing in Bluff.

By Kathy Stephenson

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: December 30, 2013 08:47AM
Updated: December 31, 2013 09:09AM
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Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, a member of the Navajo Tribe in Bluff, Utah, shares with television chef Lidia Bastianich the culture behind an ancient tradition: a Navajo House Blessing. Courtesy of Richard Scott

For many years, television chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich has traveled the country celebrating the cultures and food traditions of people who, like her, risked everything to come to America for a better life.

But Bastianich’s personal immigrant story came full circle when she arrived at the Navajo reservation in Utah for a traditional house blessing.

“Here I was an immigrant in America, and this is where America began,” she said during a recent telephone interview to promote “Lidia Celebrates America — Life’s Milestones.” “It was very special for me and very emotional.”

The popular PBS series, which airs Monday, Dec. 30, at 9 p.m. on KUED, celebrates, as Bastianich says, “festive landmarks of life,” showing viewers the diverse customs, foods and traditions celebrated by families and communities.

The Utah segment is one of four celebrations showcased in the hourlong program. Other celebrations include a country music debut in Nashville, a Greek Orthodox baptism for triplets and a Brazilian-American culinary student’s college graduation.

To get to Bluff, Bastianich flew into Salt Lake City, then hopped another plane to the Four Corners region before driving to the reservation.

“The surroundings were so beautiful,” she said.

On the reservation, she met the recipients of a new home constructed by Design Build Bluff, a 10-year-old program through the University of Utah’s architecture and planning department. Students design a house for particular family one semester, and then go to the Four Corners region to build the house the next semester. The homes are all made with sustainable materials and equipped with solar power.

During the episode, Bastianich discovers how the Churro sheep came to the region and how industrious the Navajo are at using all parts of the animal, including the wool for blankets.

Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, from Gallup, N.M., shows Bastianich how to prepare lamb and blue-corn “polenta” made with ash.

“Lidia was impressed that we cooked with wood ash,” said Bitsoie, who was born in Monticello, and whose mother was raised in Aneth, San Juan County. “In rustic Italian cooking, ash is used as a natural baking soda to help things rise.”

In Navajo cooking, the ash is added to ground blue corn — which is naturally more purple in color — to increase its nutritional value, said Bitsoie. “It’s also what turns it blue.”

Bitsoie took Bastianich and her camera crew across state lines to Sheep Rock, Colo., to the country’s oldest slaughterhouse for lambs and goats.

The episode ends with the house blessing, something outsiders are rarely allowed to attend. Camera crews were even allowed to film portions of the ceremony.

In the end, Bastianich found the Utah story particularly memorable.

“I stood for a moment and thought, these were not people who were immigrants,” she said. “They owned the land and were kind enough to take us in.”

kathys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kathystephenson

Lidia on KUED

P Celebrity chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich features four rites of passage, including a Navajo house blessing in Bluff, on a new episode of “Lidia Celebrates America — Life’s Milestones.”

When • Monday at 9 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7

Grilled Churro lamb with juniper

Chef Freddie Bitsoie demonstrates this traditional Navajo delicacy on PBS Food’s “Lidia Celebrates America.”

4 (8-ounce) cuts from leg of lamb

3 tablespoons dried juniper (or substitute ground juniper berries)

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons pepper

Combine dried juniper, salt and pepper in a bowl and stir to coat lamb. (If desired, add a bit of oil and marinate.)

Let ingredients sit for about an hour.

On a preheated grill, cook for about 6 minutes on each side (for medium well).

Remove to a plate and allow to rest for about 7 minutes.

Servings • 4

Source: Chef Freddie Bitsoie