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Wild Rice: A Taste Of The Upper Midwest

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Darrin Nordahl
Darrin Nordahl

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I'll never forget my first and only drive through eastern Minnesota one early November. I was on my way to Duluth, and as I approached town, I was amazed at how many places were advertising this one particular food: roadside stands proclaiming "Wild Rice - $3/lb"; restaurants advertising wild rice accompaniments; and the convenience store proudly announcing its most popular products: "Cigarettes, Beer, Wild Rice." Wild rice is the State Grain of Minnesota. Something about the Minnesota landscape provides prime habitat for wild rice to thrive (the state's nickname, "Land of 10,000 Lakes," is a clue). And it is a food so highly revered it makes you wonder why the rest of America hasn't adopted it as a staple in their diet.

Wild rice is a seasonal delicacy in Minnesota. Yet it is such a simple, humble food; a grain that primitive societies subsisted on for millennia. And it is still harvested in the same manner exhibited by those prehistoric cultures. No mechanical threshers, diesel powered machinery, or hi-tech gadgetry of any kind are used to harvest wild rice. Just a human, a canoe, and a stick.

Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on harvesting wild rice, which is fascinating in its timeless simplicity:

Native Americans and non-Indians harvest wild rice by canoeing into a stand of plants, and bending the ripe grain heads with wooden sticks called knockers, so as to thresh the seeds into the canoe. The size of the knockers, as well as other details, are prescribed in state and tribal law. By Minnesota statute, knockers must be at most 1 inch in diameter, 30 inches long, and one pound in weight.The plants are not beaten with the knockers but require only a gentle brushing to dislodge the mature grain.

Today, some states, like California, are cultivating "wild" rice. But much of the Upper Midwest is still graced with this perennial, aquatic grass growing rampant without any aid of humans.

Wild rice is earthy and more robust than the Asiatic species of rice. So it deserves robust sauces, flavors, and other earthy flavors. I created a mushroom and wild rice soup, using liberal amounts of heavy cream, with generous dashes of cumin, paprika and ground mustard. The result was quite satisfying, both to the palate and the soul.

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Cream of Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup

INGREDIENTS
1-1/4 cups wild rice, cooked
2 cups sliced mushrooms (I used oyster, but morels would be divine! Or pick your favorite)
1 shallot, finely minced
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 cups heavy cream
1 cup chicken broth
1 tsp ground mustard
3/4 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp smoked paprika, plus more for garnish
Salt and peppers

Sliced, toasted, almonds
Chervil

PREPARATION
Cook wild rice according to package instructions. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat olive oil and butter over medium heat until butter begins to sizzle. Add shallots and mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms have sweated off their moisture. Add cooked rice and stir well.

Add the broth and the cream, the mustard, cumin, and smoked paprika. Stir well to combine, then reduce heat to a simmer. Allow soup to simmer for a good while, maybe thirty minutes. During the simmer, taste soup periodically and add salt and pepper as necessary.

Ladle into bowls, and sprinkle soup with sliced almonds and more smoked paprika. Finish with a sprig of fresh chervil.