Rice on the wild side: exotic natural grain from Minnesota

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.

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.

Combine rice and liquid in a heavy saucepan. Bring to boil, cover, simmer 30 minutes, then check every five minutes for doneness.

Wild rice should be not be cooked to the point where it curls over and looses its texture. Any excess liquid from cooking may be saved, frozen, and added to soups, or to the recipe if more liquid is to be added. Microwave Wild Rice

Combine ingredients as above in microwave-safe dish. Cook on high heat for 5 minutes, then on 50 percent power an additional 30 to 40 minutes. Cover to prevent excess evaporation.

Wild rice is like pasta and regular rice -- you often find you've cooked more than you need for one meal. If that's the case, try these pancakes for breakfast. Cooked rice may also be added to omelets. Wild Rice Buttermilk Pancakes 4 eggs 1 1/4 cup buttermilk 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons butter, melted 1 cup cooked wild rice

Whisk eggs, buttermilk, and baking soda together in large bowl. Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt and whisk into egg mixture.

Stir in melted butter and wild rice. Fry on griddle as you would regular pancakes. For thicker pancakes, use two eggs.

Serve with hot fruit preserves or maple syrup. Wild Rice with Pasta, Herbs, Tomatoes, and Cheese 3 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced 4 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley 1/2 cup chopped fresh, or 2 tablespoon dried, basil 1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes 1/2 cup olive oil 2/3 cup uncooked wild rice (2 cups cooked) 2 cups water 3/4 teaspoon salt 1 10-ounce package spinach (green) noodles 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese 8 ounces Fontina cheese, shredded (about 2 cups)

In a medium bowl, toss tomatoes, garlic, parsley, basil, mint, one teaspoon salt, pepper, pepper flakes, and olive oil. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes to 4 hours to meld flavors. Cook wild rice following any basic method. Prepare noodles according to directions on package. Do not overcook.

Mix cooked wild rice with tomato-herb mixture. Drain noodles when done, and mix with cheeses while still warm. Turn into large shallow dish. Top with wild rice mixture. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6. Wild Rice Turkey Salad 2 cups cooked wild rice 2/3 cup mayonnaise 1/3 cup milk 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1/2 small onion, finely minced 3 cups cubed cooked turkey (or chicken) 1 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained 1/2 pound seedless green grapes, halved (about 2 cups) 1 cup cashew nuts Salt and pepper to taste Lettuce leaves Lemon slices (optional)

In large bowl combine mayonnaise, milk, lemon juice, and onion and mix well.

Stir in rice, turkey, water chestnuts. Refrigerate until chilled.

Before serving, mix in grapes and nuts. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve on individual lettuce leaves and garnish with lemon slices. Wild Rice-Peanut Topping 1/2 pound wild rice, cooked 1/2 pound dry roasted peanuts 1/2 pound brown sugar 2 cups raisins

Combine cooked rice with remaining ingredients and chill. Use as topping for ice cream, vanilla pudding, custard, or yogurt.

Keeps from two to three weeks covered in refrigerator, or may be frozen up to six months. Wild Rice and Hamburger Casserole 2 cups boiling water 1 cup uncooked wild rice 1 can chicken and rice soup 1 small can mushrooms, undrained 1/2 cup water 1 bay leaf 1/4 teaspoon each: garlic powder, paprika, pepper, poultry seasoning, or sage 1 small onion, chopped 3 tablespoons salad oil 1 pound lean ground beef

Pour boiling water over rice, cover, and let stand 20 minutes, then drain.

Place rice in 2-quart casserole and add soup, mushrooms with liquid, water, and seasonings.

Saut'e onions in oil until wilted and add to rice. Add ground beef to frying pan and fry until lightly browned and crumbly. Add to rice and mix gently.

Bake covered in pre-heated 350 degree F. oven for 2 hours.

Serves 4.

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