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Caviar of Grains - November 2016

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Caviar of Grains - November 2016

by Ron Skaar

Wild rice has been a Native American food for at least 1,000 years. Its ancient grains have been found in layers of the earth dating back to the Stone Age. Wild rice is a cool climate water grass, a distant relative of rice and the only cereal grain native to North America.

The Chippewa, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk and Winnebago tribes gathered an abundant annual harvest of wild rice, which grew along the edges of lakes and streams in present-day Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada. The harvest provided them a more affluent life-style and became a large part of their rich ceremonial life.

This grain has been much sought after ever since the Native Americans first introduced it to the early explorers, fur traders and settlers. While the Chippewa coined the term “manomin” for wild rice, the Scandinavian immigrants called it “pocket money” due to the fact that a small amount could feed a large family.

Many places in the Midwest and Canada are named after the wild rice plant. On Lower Rice Lake, situated in Minnesota ten miles from the origin of the Mississippi, the traditional harvest methods are governed by the Ojibwa tribe. No longer a nutritional mainstay, they harvest wild rice as a kind of spiritual and familiar bonding event.

Poles are used to propel their canoes and wood wands, usually carved of cedar, called “knockers or “flails” beat the grains from the bent grasses into the boat. On shore the grains are spread in the sun, then toasted and winnowed in birch trays.  

Hand harvesting from boats is a study in grace and skill. Native Americans maintain the rights to harvest wild rice on their reservation lands. Pollution, competing aquatic plants and flooding caused by beaver dams have caused a steady decline in the total rice harvest. Today, 80 % of the wild rice harvest comes from man made paddies in Minnesota and California.

Wild rice has a complex, nutlike flavor and its tender grains are pleasantly chewy, thanks to its intact bran layer and the parching process. Wild rice is higher in protein and dietary fiber than other rice. It also contains the amino acid lysine and vitamin B, including Niacin and B6. 

Connoisseurs claim truly “wild” rice has more flavor than the cultivated variety. It has an earthy flavor with flowery, tea like notes. The grains blend well with other rice, can be used in poultry stuffing, in salads or can be served on its own. 

Wild rice takes longer to cook than most grains so rinsing and presoaking it in warm water can hasten the preparation time. A little goes along way, 1 cup dry makes 3 to 4 cups cooked rice.

Wild rice soup is a savory standard throughout Minnesota. This buttery, vegetable embelished recipe is an excellent way to use up some of that left-over turkey.

Photo by Jon Russo


Creamy Wild Rice and Turkey Soup

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

2 ribs celery, diced

4 oz. mushrooms, sliced

3 tablespoons flour

5 cups chicken or turkey broth

2 cups cooked wild rice

1 branch fresh thyme

1 ½ cups diced cooked turkey

1 cup whipping cream

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Chopped chives or parsley for garnish

 

Melt butter in large saucepan and cook the onion, carrots and celery until vegetables begin to soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Sprinkle

flour over vegetables and cook for 1 minute. Add stock or broth and thyme. Cover and heat to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender, 15 minutes. Add wild rice and turkey and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from heat, add cream and salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with chopped chives or parsley. Makes 4 to 6 servings.