Call of the wild
Of all the crops grown in Minnesota, one of the most unique is wild rice. It is the one crop that has been grown and hand-harvested virtually the same way for more than 1,000 years.
It is also the only grain native to North America. Not really a rice at all — though it looks like one — wild rice is the seed of a tall aquatic grass found in the lakes and rivers of Minnesota, upper Michigan, northern Wisconsin and Canada. Minnesota, however, is the leader, supplying millions of pounds of this treasured commodity annually.
With its earthy, nutty flavor, wild rice has quite a colorful history. It was a prized staple of the Chippewa, Ojibwa and Menominee tribes, later becoming an important bargaining item for fur traders.
In spite of all the agricultural harvesting advances, hand-harvesting wild rice has stayed virtually the same for centuries. A person poles a canoe through the tall, 8- to 12-foot grass while a companion bends the heads of the grasses over the boat with a flailing stick and hits them with another stick, knocking the ripe kernels into the boat.
Experienced harvesters can gather up to 500 pounds a day. As much as 80 percent of the crop stays on the grasses, falls into the water and will reseed next year's crop.
As the demand for wild rice grew in the 1960s, researchers at the University of Minnesota developed another technique of growing and gathering called "paddy rice." It's grown the same way as the hand-harvested crop, except the water is drained in late summer, giving the ground time to dry out. Special combines then harvest the seeds. After it has been harvested, it is taken to one of many small processing plants for cleaning, curing and roasting.
Is there a difference between the two? You would have to have a very sophisticated palate to tell the difference. It is interesting, however, that taste and color can vary from lake to lake and paddy to paddy.
Wild rice is a healthy food. A half-cup serving has just 70 calories — that's if you eat it plain, without gravy or sauce. It is a high-fiber carbohydrate, high in protein, low in fat and a good source of B vitamins.
If there was a Minnesota state soup, it would be wild rice soup. When restaurants put it on the menu, it generally sells out.
The Canadian Honker, in Rochester, has been known for its version for years. "We sell our chicken wild rice soup every Wednesday all year long," said owner Joe Powers. "We can barely keep up with the orders. It is also requested when we cater dinners.
"Usually we make it a blend, to tone down the earthy flavor a little," Powers said. "We also have it as a side or as a special with chicken. Any way we have it, wild rice is a big seller."
Wild rice has also been added to breads, stuffings,and salads. Hy-Vee, Just-Rite and Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe add it to their brats and hamburgers. It has even found its way into puddings.
Holly Ebel, of Rochester, has been a Post-Bulletin food writer for more than 20 years.
Add 1 cup uncooked wild rice to 3-4 cups boiling salted water. Cover, lower heat and simmer until grains begin to open, 45 minutes or longer. Drain any excess liquid. Wild rice can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen up to six months.
Wild craisin salad
3 cups cooked wild rice
1/2 cup sliced celery
1/4 cup sliced green onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 cup craisins
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients, then set aside.
1/2 cup cranberry juice
1/3 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sugar and salt to taste
In a small bowl mix ingredients. Pour over the salad and toss well.
Cinnamon wild rice pudding
3 eggs, beaten
3/4 cups raisins
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cooked wild rice
2 cups half-and-half, slightly warmed
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar
Butter or grease a 1-1/2 quart casserole. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine eggs, raisins, maple syrup,1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, wild rice and half-and-half. Stir gently and pour into prepared casserole. Mix 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle over the pudding. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until pudding is set. Serve warm.
Wild rice soup
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
3 cups wild rice, cooked
1 cup chopped ham or chicken (if chicken, cook and cut into small pieces)
1 cup chopped carrots
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon curry powder (optional)
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (optional)
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat and saute the onion and celery until soft. Stir in flour and cook, whisking, until it develops a nutty aroma. Watch carefully. Combine the broth and water together and add slowly to the flour mixture, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until it is thick. Add the rice, ham or chicken, carrots, salt, pepper, curry powder, half-and-half and wine. Cook, stirring, until everything is warmed through. Ladle hot soup into bowls and top with shredded cheddar if desired.