Contrary to what many people believe, wild rice is not rice at all but a grass. Much of it sold in the world today is not even wild but rather cultivated varieties that do not occur naturally. Wild rice is really an annual aquatic seed Zizania aquatica found mostly in the upper freshwater lakes of Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in North America.
The Algonquin, Ojibwa, Dakota, Winnebago, Sioux, Fox, and Chippewa tribes used wild rice as an important staple in their diets and considered it the centerpiece of their Megwetch Manomin Feast that followed the first harvest. During the long, cold winters when the lakes were frozen and hunting was difficult, their precious stores of wild rice nourished them well. They called it manomin or mahnomen, after the Menominee tribe and referred to the grains as "good berry." They also had great reverence for "the precious grain sent by the Great Spirit to serve as food." The grain was so valuable to subsistence that tribes sometimes waged wars over wild rice territories. The Chippewa even carried small pouches of wild rice with them whenever they traveled.
Before any explorers set foot on the North American continent, wild rice was gathered by Indians over an expansive of area North America from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley. Archeologists found charred remains of wild rice seeds in threshing pits in the northern states that existed long before there was contact with Europeans. By the early part of the1900s, only clear lakes and rivers of the most northern regions of Minnesota could still support the growth of wild rice and provide the Indians their staple food.
The French term folles avoines,translated as crazy oats, was given by the early French explorers. These explorers were greatly impressed with the strength and hardiness of the woodland Indians and attributed their vitality to their ample servings of wild rice.
Jonathan Carver, an Englishman from London, came to explore North America and wrote Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, l767, and 1768. He recognized and reported back that wild rice was the most important of all the native wild food plants in the country.
It became known as wild rice because the explorers noticed Indians gathering it in the waters of the Great Lakes region. As they observed it rising 3 or 4 feet above the water, it reminded them of rice paddies.
Cooked wild rice has a rich nutty flavor, sometimes described as a smoky flavor, and a texture that is delightfully chewy. The slender, elongated grains that often come to market are usually about one-half inch in length and almost black in color with some touches of green. Premium grades of truly wild, uncultivated wild rice sold in gourmet markets can be as long as one-inch and the colors can vary from medium brown to nearly pure black.
About 80% of the wild rice grown in the United States today is cultivated in paddies, a practice that began about 1972 and that had a damaging effect on the incomes of Native Americans who depended on selling their wild rice. The state of Minnesota eventually enacted a state law regulating the harvesting of wild rice to protect the tribes from the infringement of agribusiness.
Northern Minnesota, the Upper Mississippi Valley, California, Washington, and Idaho are areas where hybrid varieties of wild rice are being cultivated and processed with mechanical threshers, parchers, and winnowers. Though the growing process is highly mechanized, there are some challenges to cultivating wild rice. The seeds do not grow well in stagnant water, and growers had to develop varieties that adapted well to their new environment.
With cultivated wild rice, hybrid varieties are developed to mature at the same time. The plants are then completely cut down, and the labor of processing the grains is given to machines. In the final stages of processing, rubber rollers remove the hulls and create small cuts in the grain that shortens the cooking process. These cuts give a scratched or scarified appearance.
Though wild rice is mostly associated with the United States and Canada, it is also grown in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Southern China. China grows another species called Z. latifolia, sometimes called Manchurian wild rice. The Chinese favor these plants not for their cereal grains, but for their broad leaves and young shoots that they incorporate into their cuisine. The leaves are used to wrap dumplings, while the shoots are cooked and eaten like asparagus.
In late August and September of each year, during the period known as "rice moon," their celebrations resembled a lively country fair. When the time "was right," the ricing chief would declare the proper day for harvesting. Then pairs of Indian women slowly roamed the grassy lakes in their birch bark canoes. One would take her place at the front of the boat and paddle with a long pole, the other used two long cedar or juniper sticks to bend the tall grass-heads and gently shake the seeds of the pale-green stalks into the bottom of the boat. A canoe-full of wild rice was considered a good harvest day.
Some of the grains would fall back into the water and become the seeds for next year's crop. Since the seed kernels do not all ripen at the same time, the women made numerous trips at intervals of four to six days to harvest the seeds that continue to mature. Minus the pre-harvesting ceremony, this three-centuries-old gathering method is still used today, which explains why this wild-crafted grain tends to be a pricey luxury. Some have even referred to truly wild rice as the "caviar of grains." Today, the men of the tribe share the harvesting task.
The seeds were taken to the rice camp or back to the reservation and heaped into large piles to ferment by the heat of the sun for as long as two weeks. The lengthy fermentation process gives the wild rice its familiar black color. If the grains are not fully fermented, their colors range from tan to light green, to varying shades of brown, and to black. The heady aroma of green tea is noticable with unfermented wild rice, while the aroma of fully fermented grains remind one of black tea. Following the fermentation, grains were cured or parched over smoke fires from two to four hours to dry the hulls. Just harvested wild rice has such a high moisture content, about 25% moisture, that the drying process is essential to prevent mold.
In former times to loosen the hulls of the wild rice, the young children would dance on the grains that were placed in a shallow pit lined with deerskin. The rice would then be strained through blankets to separate the chaff from the kernels. Today, the wild rice is put into bags and hand-pounded with clubs to loosen the hulls. The women then winnow the grains by lifting their filled birch-bark trays and tossing the seeds into the air, allowing the winds to carry off the hulls.
Today, the wild rice is winnowed on the reservations in large 30-gallon drums with paddles inside that loosen the hulls as the drums are turned.
Indians have a special reverence for the spirit that resides within all living things. When they harvest the wild rice they are mindful of the spirit within and respect their right to harvest. It is this respect that allows them to continue harvesting. This cultural spirituality connects them with their ancestors who gathered wild rice in the same fashion centuries before.
Truly wild rice is a challenging crop to grow, even today. It's very susceptible to failure due to weather conditions. If a heavy windstorm comes along just before harvesting, the seeds can be blown into the water, ruining an entire crop. Harvesting at just the right time becomes a matter of beating the birds to it, since wild rice is considered a delicacy by many birds living in the area. Other challenges include insects, disease, poor drainage, and high waters. If the grains are too green, they are difficult to thresh or beat out of their husks. If left on the plant too long, even a few days too long, they fall off the plant into the water.
Airboats have brought about recent improvements in commercial harvesting of the wild rice, while newer techniques for parching, winnowing, and hulling have been a help in saving time and labor. Still, it takes about three pounds of grass seed to yield one pound of wild rice.
Using the same 1/2 cup measurement of cooked grains, the folic acid content soars over brown rice with 21.3 mcg for wild rice and 3.9 mcg for brown rice. According to the University of California Berkeley Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition, 1/2 cup dry wild rice provides 95 mcg or 48% of the RDA (200 mcg) of folacin for men and 53% for women.
The niacin content of wild rice is also a stand-out figure, with l.06 mg for 1/2 cup cooked. Potassium packs an 83 mg punch, and zinc, which is usually available in trace amounts, registers 1.1 mg.
While 1/2 cup cooked wild rice offers 1.5 grams of fiber, it contains 26 mg of magnesium, a healthy balance of B vitamins and only .3 grams of unsaturated fat. Small amounts of calcium and iron are also part of the wild rice picture.
Before purchasing wild rice, you should be aware of the principal grades available.
Giant or long grain is the top quality with each unbroken grain measuring at least an inch in length. Its earthy flavor makes it a favorite of chefs who are willing to pay top price.
Fancy or medium grain has rice that is unbroken and similarly matched in color and length but not as long as the giant. This grade will cost slightly less than the Giant.
Select or short grain has kernels that are not uniform in size or color, and some of the kernels may be broken. For most purposes such as in soups, casseroles, and in combination with brown and white rice, this grade is ideal.
Cooked, leftover wild rice can keep refrigerated up to one week; however, we recommend using it up within a two or three days. Any cooked foods stored in the refrigerator for a week can develop molds and yeasts that are not visible to the eye but can negatively affect the immune system.
As a general rule established proportions for cultivated wild rice use1 cup of dry wild rice to 3 cups of water, with salt to taste. We suggest 1 teaspoon of salt. Combine these in a 2 or 3-quart saucepan, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn heat down to medium low, and steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour. When fully cooked, the grains open to reveal their purplish-grey inner portion, giving each grain a striking two-tone appearance. This quantity will yield about 3 to 4 cups of cooked grains, depending on variety.
Wild-crafted wild rice proportions use 1 cup of grain to 2 cups of water with a cooking time of 45 minutes.
The principal challenge in preparing wild rice is that there are variations in the cooking times. Rice gathered naturally has part of its bran layer removed during the hull removal stage and so lessens its cooking time. Commercially grown rice that does not have any of the bran layer removed may take an hour or more to cook, while gathered rice may only need 45 minutes. A taste test is your best method. The fully cooked grains should not be mushy nor should they be crunchy. Aim for a texture that is pleasantly chewy.
Though wild rice is one of the most expensive grains, it goes a long way. Some say that one pound of the grain can feed thirty people. To compensate for its high cost, try combining wild rice half-and-half with brown rice. For a truly colorful presentation, try one-third of each; white rice, brown rice, and wild rice.
If you should have the opportunity to harvest your own wild rice, bring it home, and spread it out in a warm place to dry thoroughly. Then spread it out on a baking pan and put it into the oven at about 375 F to 400 F for about an hour. Cool slightly and rub between the hands to remove the husks. Winnow out the husks with a sieve and store the grains in the refrigerator. Before cooking, be sure to rinse the grains thoroughly to remove the strong smoky taste.
Create your own original salad combinations with vegetables that are your own seasonal favorites and seasonings that are especially pleasing to you.
Wrap a whole head of garlic in aluminum foil (shiny side inside), and roast at 375 for 1 hour. Open the foil and cool slightly. Gently remove each clove and squeeze out the contents into a cereal-size bowl. Mix with a small amount of unsweetened soy milk to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper, and serve on the side for guests to add a dollop on their wild rice dish.
Wild rice pairs especially well with mushrooms. Slice some crimini mushrooms, and briefly sauté them in a little soy sauce, lemon juice, and water. For an attractive presentation, add them as a topping over cooked wild rice. Garnish with some thinly sliced scallions and serve.
Fit for a royal banquet, these elgant stuffed squashes provide a festive entree for a holiday season menu. Accompany them with the traditional trimmings like cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, roasted vegetables, and pumpkn pie. The recipe will be easier to assemble if you prepare the chestnuts the day before. As a time-saver, consider purchasing cooked, peeled chestnuts in a jar.
Wild Rice, Chestnut, and Pecan Stuffed Squashes is one of the delicious recipes from Zel Allen's cookbook The Nut Gourmet: Nourishing Nuts for Every Occasion published by Book Publishing Company in 2006.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
Notes: If using fresh chestnuts, make a crisscross cut in each chestnut. Boil the chestnuts in water to cover for 20 minutes. Peel them with a sharp paring knife while the chestnuts are still warm, removing the inner brown skin as well.
Extra stuffing can be put into a covered casserole dish and baked at 350 degrees (Gas Mark 4) for 30 minutes.