Rice on the wild side: exotic natural grain from Minnesota
Leech Lake Indian Reservation, Minn.
DURING a recent holiday in Minnesota I indulged for nine days in one of the great natural culinary delights in this country -- wild rice. I cooked, ate, and served the exotic grain at least once a day: in omelets for breakfast, soups for lunch, in salads, saut'eed with mushrooms and onions as a side dish, in casseroles, and of course as a stuffing for poultry.Skip to next paragraph
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Northern Minnesota produces nearly two-thirds of the world supply of wild rice. Most of it comes from up here near the boundary waters.
In spite of the common name, this dark, native grain -- Zizania aquatica, to be exact -- is not related to the common rice: Oryza sativa.
So important was this grain to the Chippewa and Sioux Indians in this area that tribal wars were periodically waged to control and maintain the shallow waters where it grew.
That's no longer a problem in the area now. Up here, wild rice is sold in every supermarket, as well as at gas stations -- ``It's there, right next to the Trail Blazer brand beef jerky'' -- and even in bait shops and sporting goods stores.
At the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, LeRoy Ellis runs the One Stop Bait Shop. He's quick to hand out his glossy, yellow-and-black waterproof business card featuring a duck in flight, a stag's head, and a jumping fish. Just under his motto (``Our Minnows Are Guaranteed to Catch Fish or Die Trying'') it boasts ``The Finest Native Wild Rice.''
He plucks a few one-pound packages from the glass case of fishing lures.
``Co-owned A & E Wild Rice for over 30 years,'' Mr. Ellis says, adjusting his wool cap. ``Gave it up to be a trophy guide a few years ago.''
``Do I like it?'' he asks rhetorically. ``It's the best. I'll tell you what's good -- leftover plain boiled wild rice with cream and sugar on it for breakfast.'' That, I suppose, is a bit of a luxury you can afford when you own the company.
``That's five dollars a pound,'' he says, handing me two packets and two leaflets with recipes and directions for cooking. Bargain prices compared to what it goes for on the East Coast.
LeRoy Ellis's son, Don, takes over the minnow sales when LeRoy is out guide-fishing. He, too, has been gathering rice since he was just a tot.
``You have to be a resident of the reservation to harvest the rice here,'' says the younger Ellis. ``You can't just come in from outside like you do to hunt and fish. And it's strictly controlled.
``To get the natural, good stuff you have to go by canoe into the streams and rivers. Canoe can't be more than 18 feet long and 30 inches wide. And you can only harvest certain hours. Two hours when the season starts up in early fall, to a maximum of four hours. Game wardens check the area by plane and even pontoon.''
Today, most rice is grown commercially in bogs and harvested with combines. It may be nearly impossible for anyone else to notice a difference, but Don Ellis thinks the commercially grown rice is not the same.
``It doesn't have as good a flavor,'' he says.
The younger Ellis praises the versatility of the dark, delicious grain. ``It's great. You can do anything with it. You can add it to everything -- just like zucchini,'' he says with a chuckle.
Not everyone in Minnesota shares the Ellises' enthusiasm.
At Lunds Supermarket in St. Paul, one little fellow who had temporarily misplaced his mother expressed his dislike as I was piling packets of wild rice into a shopping cart to carry back to Boston. ``Yuck. I don't like it. It tastes like you're eating sticks.''
Be that as it may, it still grows in popularity.
Wild rice gets more expensive the farther you get from Minnesota.
One pound of wild rice can cost upward of $10, sometimes more, when ordered from the back of some slick gourmet magazines. But it goes a long way and can even be stretched further when mixed with equal parts of cooked white rice. A one-pound package of wild rice makes between 18 and 20 half-cup servings.
For those who delight in the crunchy, nutty-flavored, high-priced grain, ``Wild Rice, Star of The North'' (McGraw-Hill, $12.95) is a good source of recipes. Cooking Basic Wild Rice 1 cup uncooked wild rice, thoroughly rinsed 3 to 4 parts lightly salted water or chicken or beef stock.