Real wild rice, the reedy lake and river grain beloved by the Ojibwa Indians, is a prehistoric pantry staple older than the country itself. Far more than its cultivated cousins, it expresses the flavor of the land that fosters it: vegetal and savory, with aromas of water and wood. Those sensory associations — coupled with the fact that it is harvested in early fall — are the likely reasons so many cooks consider wild rice an ingredient to be stuffed inside the holiday bird and forgotten about until the next November.
But that stereotype's a shame: Like its cousins Arborio and basmati, wild rice (which actually isn't rice at all, but the seed of an annual aquatic grass) makes a beguiling blank slate for all sorts of seasonal recipes, from creamy winter chowders to chilled summertime salads studded with tomatoes and peppers. And in the spring, especially, its natural nuttiness is a perfect foil to ingredients such as sweet new peas, spicy young garlic, bright asparagus, freshwater fish and citrus.
That's what I decided a few weeks ago, anyway, after a friend arrived for dinner bearing a packet of wild rice as a gift — a fistful of grains that ranged in hue from fatigue green to black as porcupine quills. Here was the real deal: a bit of the stash his mother has been mail-ordering (truly "writing away for") from the same small purveyor in northern Minnesota for the last 25 years.
Indeed, though more than 85% of so-called wild rice available in markets is actually farmed in seeded commercial paddies in California and Minnesota, undomesticated stands of self-propagating Zizania palustris still thrive in the watery pockets between the Great Lakes and on both sides of the Canadian border. There, the annual harvest — manoominike-giizis, meaning wild rice moon — remains a hallowed event that follows a script that's changed little over the last millennium.
Since 1939, a Minnesota law designed to protect the traditions of the native rice industry has required that the gathering of all truly wild rice be performed in canoes, by a two-person team armed with a pole for navigation (paddling is impossible because the reeds grow so thickly) and two long sticks known as "knockers" that are used to bend the stalks and gently shake ripe kernels into the boat. In Canada, by contrast, the process is more often conducted via powered airboat.
With a distinct smokiness and heady, leafy perfume, real wild rice — like many other love-it-or-hate-it ingredients — tends to attract a cult following. Some aficionados claim to be able to detect the nuances in rice harvested from particularly prime stands, much the way a wine connoisseur might trace a bottle back to its vintage and vineyard.
When it first falls from the stalk, wild rice is green, and it is the next step in the harvest process — the curing, parching over fire and hulling of the bran — that ultimately plays the greatest role in its taste, preparation time and consistency.
Generally speaking, the darker and larger the kernel, the longer it takes to cook. The rice is done when the kernels puff open. Figure anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes when simmered on the stovetop.
Because natural parching is an inconsistent process, true wild rice comes in a muted rainbow of neutral colors, ranging from deep mahogany (in which most of the bran layer is still attached) to pale blond (in which most of the hull has fallen away).
Therefore, in the absence of clear labeling — and frankly, most of the brands found in grocery stores are packaged in a way that seems deliberately abstruse — one of the quickest ways to spot cultivated impostors is to look for grains that are broken, hard and uniformly black.
Eager to see what I could make with it (besides the ubiquitous cranberry stuffing), I saved my supply for supper the next Sunday, when I steamed it until each seed had split slightly to reveal its pale pith. Folded in with wilted radicchio, a scattering of creamy white beans, a tart squeeze of lemon and a handful of sweet chopped dates pulled from the pantry, the earthiness of the rice transformed what started as a simple warm salad of cupboard staples into something worth marveling over.
Even better, compared with some cultivated brands I'd tried in the past, which cooked up flat and slightly rubbery in the mouth, this rice had a distinct fluffiness and a seductive campfire aroma like Lapsang souchong tea — a result of its slow parching over wood flames.
It was also a time-saver. Making wild rice is far from an exact science, and any recipe for preparing it should be read more as a guide than an absolute, but generally, delicate hand-harvested grains cook fairly quickly, cutting what might be a simmering time of an hour to just half that.
Needless to say, I was smitten: Here was the rice equivalent of a bookish-brunette exchange student compared with my usual girl-next-door basmati. And, of course, I wanted more. Thankfully, though I'd depleted my cache, and true wild rice can be scarce on supermarket shelves, the Internet has made it possible to access quality suppliers with just a few strokes of the keyboard.
So, in the name of research, I loaded up my virtual shopping cart. First, a few sacks from Eden Foods, sourced by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Then, a couple of bags of a delicate, dark organic Canadian variety from the North Bay Trading Co. And finally, a pound from Native Harvest, the well-respected retail arm of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which was founded in 1989 by activist Winona LaDuke to protect the traditional Minnesota Anishinaabeg Indian wild rice industry and support the community's sustainable development.
Then I got to cooking.
When they arrived, the Canadian grains were long and spindly, dramatically shiny and dark. Compared with the brawny, rich Canadian kernels, the rice that arrived from Eden and Native Harvest was downright dainty. Smaller and paler, in shades of celadon green and bark, it cooked up in a fraction of the time and resulted in a grain that was less glutinous, milder and more ethereally earthy.
The Canadian rice was so striking, it demanded a solo. The solution? A starring role in a springtime tweak of that quintessentially Japanese comfort food katsudon: a bowl of chewy, smoky wild rice lightly sautéed with red onions, fava beans, asparagus tips and sesame oil and topped with strips of battered pork cutlet. How good was it? I ate two helpings for dinner, and then brought it back out for a breakfast encore, topped with an egg, sunny side up.
In fact, over a few weeks of experimentation, wild rice quickly became a fixture of my mornings, nudging out steel-cut oats as the whole grain of choice in my breakfast pantheon. My strategy was simple: By keeping a few cups of plain cooked rice in my refrigerator at all times, I could throw a quick and appealing cereal bowl together before I put in my contacts or finished my first cup of coffee.
On warm days, I might play around with room temperature rice, topping it with squishy slices of ripe banana or a dollop of Greek yogurt and a drizzle of syrupy warm orange marmalade, resulting in something like a tropical granola on steroids.
On cool mornings, I'd borrow a page from Minneapolis chef Mitch Omer's playbook and concoct a manoomin porridge by simmering plump rice in a generous bath of cream. Hot and savory and slightly chewy, drizzled with honey and scattered with toasted pistachios, it became an indigenous dish with a Near Eastern accent.
And because it literally carries the flavor of rivers within it, wild rice also makes a natural match for a fresh catch. (If you have a crack angler in your family, definitely put him or her to work.) After I bribed my fly-fishing father with the promise of dinner, he came home with two fat trout that we smoked for an afternoon over smoldering woodchips. While the filets were curing, I mashed together a thick batter of wild rice and new potatoes, bound together with sweet, sautéed onions and fresh garlic.
Shaped into spiky little cakes, pan-fried until golden and crunchy, then dressed with flaked fish stirred with hot horseradish and a cool scoop of dilled sour cream, it was a surprisingly simple spring supper, something like the love child of latkes and a seafood risotto. A glance at the faces around the dinner table — and the empty plates — assured me that my wild rice experiment had been a resounding success.
And there wasn't a turkey in sight.