The history of wild rice is intriguing! From the 1950s forward, my mother frequently blessed our family and her many guests with this buttered wild rice, laced with mushrooms and roasted almonds. It usually accompanied her pheasant casserole, which was Mom’s favorite dish. (I will post the pheasant recipe the next time I am offered this wild fowl; both of these recipes came from Maude Benson, an “older” woman-to my young mind-in my village of 250 people in Montana’s Glacier National Park.)
In 1673, Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit missionary-explorer, described this grain as a fausse avoine, or false oat, when he discovered the Mississippi River and the rivers near its headwaters. This annual plant which he encountered was Zizania palustris, or what we call northern wild rice today. 1
Wild rice-not a species of the true tropical rice genus Oryza-is the whole grain of a cool-climate North American water grass. Its unusually long grains are up to three-quarters of an inch, having a complex, distinctive flavor, with a greenish-black seedcoat. What you find on the market today is primarily cultivated in artificially flooded paddies, and harvested mechanically after the fields are drained; relatively small amounts come from uncultivated, naturally occurring stands. It is necessary to read labels carefully, if you want to taste truly wild rice from its native region and savor the differences among small producers. 2
Originally it was gathered in canoes by the Ojibway and other native peoples in shallow lakes and marshes of the Great Lakes region of North America; it is the only cereal to have become important as a human food in this northern continent of the Americas. 3
This wild crop was first cultivated in the early 1950s by James and Gerald Godward, who were meeting the rising demand for this delicacy in the U.S. 4
This grain is unusual among other cereals in that it contains double the amount of moisture at maturity, around 40% of the kernel weight. The result is it requires more elaborate processing than true rice in order to be stored. This process includes maturing it in moist piles for one to two weeks; next, parching dries it, enhances flavor, and makes the husk brittle; and finally it is threshed to remove the husk. 5
The parching process contributes to its firm, chewy texture, but also makes its cooking time longer, because its starch has been precooked into a glassy, hard mass. Another factor giving it a relatively lengthy cooking time is its intact bran layers are resistant to water absorption, as they are impregnated with cutins and waxes. This later quality protects the grains that fall into the natural lakes, allowing them to lie dormant for months or even years before germinating. 6
To improve water absorption and lessen cooking time, some producers will slightly abrade the grains, while cooks may choose to soak them in warm water for several hours, which isn’t all that effective. 7
Raw wild rice has flowery, green, earthy, tea-like notes. The technique of curing amplifies the tea notes, but may also bring an undesirable mustiness. Parching generates browning reactions, lending toasted, nutty characteristics. Producers use different methods of both parching and curing, which brings variations in the flavor of wild rice. These methods of curing range from none to brief to extended, while parching may utilize low to high temperatures, be over open fires, or performed in indirectly heated metal drums. 8
It has been said that how the rice was cured, as well as how old it is, dictates the timing required to prepare it. Regardless of this actual cause, to insure readiness, it is best to prepare this dish before dinnertime, and then reheat it in a well-buttered casserole in the oven for 30 minutes.
- James Trager, The Food Chronology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1995), p. 137.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), pp. 476, 477.
- Ibid., p. 476.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 476.
- Ibid., p. 476.
- Ibid., p. 476.
- Ibid., p. 476.
1950’s Wild Rice with Almonds Yields: 6 servings. Total prep time: 1-1 3/4 hr/ active prep time: 30 min/ cooking time: 30-75 min.
Note: may make this ahead of serving to insure readiness, as cooking time will vary. For poultry, substitute dried cranberries and orange with zest, in place of mushrooms and garlic. For pork, substitute tart apple and celery.
1/2 c slivered almonds
1/2 c butter
1 c wild rice
3 c chicken broth (Organic, free range broth can be purchased inexpensively at Trader Joe’s; better yet use bone broth for high nutrition, see Tortellini Sausage Soup and Bone Broth, 2016/10/10.)
1 bunch green onions, including green stems, chopped (Organic is only slightly more expensive and so much healthier.)
1-1 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste (I like this well-seasoned. Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; a fine grind Himalayan salt is available inexpensively at Costco.)
3/4 tsp freshly ground pepper, or to taste
2 c sliced mushrooms (For poultry, substitute: 1 c dried cranberries, plus 1 chopped orange with zest. For pork, substitute: 2 c chopped tart apple, plus 1 c diced celery.)
2 lg cloves garlic, minced-only use this with the mushrooms (For easy prep, may substitute 1 cube of frozen garlic; available at Trader’s.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread almonds on a cookie sheet and roast in oven for 10 minutes; set aside on a plate to cool.
- In a 3-qt sauce pan, melt 1/4 c butter over medium heat; add rice and sauté for 10 minutes.
- Add broth, raise heat to med/high, and bring to a boil.
- Lower heat and simmer until chewy, or soft-test for desired tenderness. Timing will vary from 30 to 60 minutes, or longer. Stir occasionally and WATCH WATER LEVEL CAREFULLY WHILE COOKING. (See photos.)
- Meanwhile in a sauté pan, melt remaining 1/4 c butter over medium heat.
- Lower heat to med/low, add onions, salt, pepper, and mushrooms (substituting cranberries and orange with zest-instead of mushrooms-to accompany poultry, or apple and celery for pork).
Sauté produce until desired tenderness is reached, stirring frequently. At this point, add garlic-only if using mushrooms-and cook until aroma arises; set aside.
- Blend sautéed onion mixture and almonds into finished rice, adjust seasonings. To insure readiness, may set aside at this point to reheat just before serving. If doing this, place rice medley in a well-buttered 2-qt casserole and bake, uncovered, in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes.
- Serve with confidence!