For many of Minnesota’s earliest inhabitants, the coming of autumn was associated with wild rice. Just after the wild rice harvest in late August or early September, this nutty, earthy grain was a mainstay of Native American diets. Though most plentiful right after harvest, wild rice was also “finished” and stored for use throughout the year, often for thickening stews containing venison, fish, or wildfowl.
To this day wild rice is celebrated with fall festivals, including the Wild Rice Festival at the Harriet Alexander Nature in Roseville, Minnesota. The annual event, taking place this year on September 17th, is billed as “A celebration of wild rice, Native American culture and Minnesota’s harvest season.” At the festival, Minneapolis’s Pow Wow Grounds Café will be selling this year’s wild rice in the form of wild rice quiche, wild rice muffins, wild rice soup, wild rice scones and wild rice parfaits. Café owner Robert Rice, who himself is a traditional wild rice harvester, said he usually brings in about 300 pounds of wild rice from Leech Lake per season, which is enough to supply his café with nearly all the wild rice it uses in a year.
Wild rice is featured in the migration story of the Ojibwe people. As tribal prophets had predicted, the Ojibwe migrated westward from the east coast of North America until they found the food that “grows on water,” which they called manoomin. They still revere wild rice as a special gift of the Creator. And this aquatic grass still grows naturally in Northern and Central Minnesota. Historically its range included our entire state. Natural wild rice grows in streams as well as in lakes and marshes with some moving water from inlets and outlets or flowages, usually in water six inches to three feet deep. An annual plant, wild rice grows from seeds that have fallen into the water the previous autumn.
Up until the 1960s, all wild rice grown in Minnesota was truly wild, and our state produced half of the global market supply, most of it hand-harvested. Once cultivated wild rice was introduced, machine-harvesting and processing followed, bringing down the price of wild rice. Cultivated wild rice sells for about half the price of real wild rice. This hasn’t been good news for the Ojibwe, who still harvest the native aquatic grass two per canoe, one operating the forked push pole and the other knocking rice into the canoe with a pair of wooden flails.
The State of Minnesota website suggests a soak method for cooking wild rice that greatly reduces the cooking time, though it does require planning ahead: rinse a half cup of wild rice and soak in three cups of water overnight. Drain and add the soaked wild rice to a saucepan with three cups of water and a half teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain the rice and use in your favorite recipe.
Wild rice is quite versatile and a welcome addition to breakfast, lunch or dinner. For a fiber-rich start to the day, heat cooked wild rice with enough cream or almond milk to make a porridge. Add dried or fresh fruit of your choice and a sprinkling of toasted almonds.
Wild rice makes a tasty salad with the addition of some olive oil and your favorite chopped vegetables and/or fruit. Consider a combination of chopped celery and apple, dried cranberries or apricots and cashews. Or try cucumber, tomatoes, bell peppers, parsley, and red or green onion with salt and red pepper flakes to taste.
For a classic side dish, cook half a pound of wild rice in water till tender and then mix in a pound of mushrooms that have been sautéed in butter. Alternatively, stir cooked wild rice to your favorite potato or mushroom soup recipe. Add it to a frittata or turn it into stuffing for fish or pork chops. However, you decide to prepare it (or buy it prepared), plan to eat local this month by enjoying a meal or two featuring wild rice.
By Anita Dualeh