The gift of wild rice
No wild food is more fascinating to me than wild rice. In Wisconsin it has a long and culturally significant history, particularly for Native American tribes who have been gathering it for generations. In fact, many bloody battles were fought over prized rice beds between Indian tribes long ago. This grain’s nutritional value, and ability to store for long periods of time, was a key factor of survival for these tribal people during the long and cold winter months. For them, “manoomin” (meaning good berry) was worth fighting for.
I was thinking this one day not so long ago as I gazed upon a large and undulating bed of wild rice off a boat landing on the Wisconsin River. In reality, this plant looks pretty non-descript, and could easily be dismissed as a swamp weed or river grass. But Native Americans never considered it as such.
In fact, so revered was this wild food that the gathering and preparation of it sparked numerous culturally significant traditions that many Native Americans still practice today. And they are truly fascinating.
Take for instance that the harvesting of this crop is done pretty much the same way it has been performed for millennia. Even today no mechanicals are used and the DNR has restrictions on the size of the harvesting sticks or “flails” used and even the size of the boats that can be pushed into the rice beds.
Native Americans use their canoes to work their way into the beds. One person stands at the back of the canoe and guides it with a push-pole. Then a person sitting in the boat uses long sticks, preferably made from cedar wood, to bend the stalks of the rice over the hull of the boat and knock the heads of the rice plant with the other stick. The grains fall to the bottom of the boat.
Back in the day, once a boat load of rice was gathered it was taken to the wild rice camp and dried. This was done by laying it out flat on animal skins to parch in the sun. When it had the correct moisture level the grain was then dried even further in large iron pots heated by the flames from a wood fire. The Indians would stir the grains with special rice “paddles” carved from branches.
Then a pit was dug and a tanned animal skin was carefully laid in this trench. Indians would make special moccasins to “dance” the rice, with soft tanned soles and long shafts of leather that tied up around the knees. Dancing on the rice released the grain from the hull. Once this was accomplished the rice was then placed in a shallow birch bark basket and the hulls were winnowed from the grain by the wind. The women would gently toss the danced rice into the air and the hull and chaff were light enough to be blown away in a breeze while the heavier rice grain fell back into the basket.
Harvesting wild rice by stick and canoe is a relatively crude way to take in a crop. Not very efficient by any means but that’s OK because this crop is an annual one and the only way it can reproduce is by reseeding itself.
Wild rice is also a favorite for many wild animals including water fowl of every species. Fish, frogs and turtles live among its grassy stalks and as any “ricer” knows it is home to lots and lots of insects.
I had the good fortune of receiving some wild rice from a friend of mine recently and it is delicious. It has a nutty, wild flavor and blends in well with vegetables, meats and mushrooms. This week I’ve included a couple of recipes given to me by wild rice gathers.
But I will always be fascinated by this wild food that Native Americans believe came to them from the Great Creator. And what a wonderful gift it truly is.
Wild Rice Casserole
1 cup uncooked wild rice
2 cups boiling water
1 lb. sliced fresh mushrooms
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tbs. butter
3/4 cup uncooked long grain rice
1/2 cup sliced almonds
3 cups chicken broth
11/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
3 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
Place wild rice in a bowl and cover with boiling water; soak for 1 hour. Drain and set aside. In a large skillet, sautè mushrooms and onion in butter until tender. In a large bowl, combine the mushroom mixture, wild rice, long grain rice, almonds, broth, cream, salt and pepper. Transfer to a greased 21/2-qt. baking dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 75 minutes. Uncover; sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake 10 minutes longer or until rice is tender. Yield: 8-10 servings.
Wild Rice Soup
3 cups chopped celery
1 large onion, chopped
11/2 cups carrots, chopped
2 cups sliced mini portabella mushrooms
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 cup dry white wine or white cooking wine
1 cup flour
12 oz. uncooked wild rice
6 cups vegetable, chicken or turkey stock
3 cups cooked and diced turkey or chicken
2 cups heavy cream
kosher salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
Heat olive oil in a 8-quart or larger stockpot over medium-high heat. Add celery, onion and carrots and sautè for 10 minutes until onions are translucent, stirring in the mushroom slices at 5 minutes into the cooking time. Add garlic and stir into the other vegetables. Stir in white wine. Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and stir in. Cook for 3 minutes, constantly stirring. Add in wild rice and stock. Cover stockpot and cook for 45 minutes over medium-low heat until wild rice hulls split open. When rice is tender, remove cover and stir in turkey or chicken meat. Continue cooking for 5 minutes to heat the meat pieces thoroughly. Stir in cream, season to taste and allow to simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Serve immediately or store in airtight containers in fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.