—by Stacie Robinson
Wild rice is a staple of Minnesota’s natural nutrition as well as cultural heritage. The waving stands of grass are part of the picturesque vision of Minnesota’s lake country. According to Anishinaabe lore, those rice-rich lakes, “food that grows upon the water,” were the signal that early tribes had found the right land to settle. The abundant grains fed native communities and nourished waterfowl and other wetland wildlife populations. Today wild rice is still a keystone of Minnesota lake ecosystems, and a delicious and popular wild crop.
The hearty flavor of wild rice dishes might conjure autumnal images of holiday dinner parties, but rice is a crop of late summer. So next time you make a warm wild rice dish, let it transport you back to a hot August afternoon in lake country, where rice is still harvested traditionally by hand and from canoe. This summer I was lucky enough to join in the rice harvest with the Pietron family, Hampden Park Co-op’s wild rice suppliers. Ahhh, summer memories....
Ricing is regulated to ensure that the natural crop is protected. The season extends from mid-August through September. The designated collection hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. also enforce something of a leisurely schedule—though don’t mistake that to mean easy work. Roger Pietron tells me that on a good day, with the help of wife Susan and their three sons, the family might bring in over 400 pounds of rice in that short time.
We went out on an excellent day. The late August heat wave (remember when we had heat waves!) had the rice ripening fast and just waiting to fall off the grass into the canoe.
The morning starts with a hearty breakfast at the cabin while loading up canoes and getting geared up. Despite the heat, ricing gear means covering up to avoid the burning sun, the itching rice hulls, and biting worms that sometimes come with the rice. That’s right, biting worms!
We launch the canoes and Roger tries to teach me the ways of ricing. The poler stands precariously in the back point of the canoe and uses a pole to push the canoe through thick reeds of a good rice bed. The beater sits just in front of the poler and uses two beating sticks.
I got the hang of beating; there was a relaxing waltz-like rhythm to the woosh-tap-tap of bending grass over the canoe edge and gently knocking ripe seeds off the grass into the boat. Poling, on the other hand, might take more practice, and a few ab workouts. The experienced ricers make it look so easy to turn a loaded canoe on a dime by subtly leaning on a slippery metal stick in the mud— without even falling overboard!
I ask Roger how he ever got into such a thing, and he recounts the beginning. With a canoe and a curiosity he ventured up to the White Earth Reservation over 40 years ago to ask around for ricing partners. He found a young man just back from Vietnam and happy to share some knowledge and some time out on the lake. They cut aspen branches for beating sticks (which Roger still has) and they set out.
Ricing has long been a family and community activity, and many are happy to pass down the knowledge of ricing methods, though most are more secretive about their best harvesting spots. The Pietron family joked about blindfolding me on the way to the lake. At least I think they were joking... (You might notice, no place names are mentioned in this article.)
The day wraps up with bagging and weighing the rice. We ended up with about 300 pounds of rice from three canoes. Then it’s time for a refreshing jump in the lake!
I’m writing these recipes for a bunch of Minnesotans who belong to a natural foods co-op. I know I don’t have to tell you that wild rice makes a great stuffing or side dish or that it pairs beautifully with other local food favorites. You probably already know wild rice is perfect with cranberries and squash for all your autumn holiday pilafs, scrumptious with cream and maple syrup for a wintery morning porridge. But what to do now as winter drags on and you’d be happy to think outside the hot dish? Here’s a refreshing twist on a simple wild rice pilaf:
Mediterranean Wild Rice Pilaf
To cook wild rice, just boil in plenty of water for about 30 minutes, then drain. One cup dry yields 3–4 cups cooked. But never be afraid to make extra—leftover cooked rice is handy for other recipes.
Prepare 4 cups cooked wild rice.
While the rice is cooking, sauté in olive oil:
1 shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch asparagus stalks, chopped
1 red pepper, diced
1⁄2 cup sliced cherry tomatoes
1⁄4 cup diced olives (the pitted mixed olives in the co-op deli case work great)
Option: add a couple of cups of shredded kale to make it more of a salad than a pilaf.
Pairing: ideal next to a nice grilled fish, excellent with a dry white wine.
Wild rice is so much more versatile than just pilafs! Think about baking with rice. Muffin batter is a great place to hide that leftover rice, and wild rice is a great way to hide some protein in a tasty muffin.
Wild Rice Blueberry Pecan Muffins
Dry mix: stir together in a large bowl
3⁄4 cup all-purpose flour (or try spelt for lower gluten)
3⁄4 cup buckwheat flour (a great complement to the nuttiness of wild rice)*
1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
Good stuff: toss together and mix with the flour mixture
1 cup blueberries (fresh or thawed frozen berries or rehydrated dry berries work well)
1⁄2 cup chopped pecans
1 cup cooked wild rice
Wet mix: whisk together, then add to dry mix and stir thoroughly:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1⁄2 cup milk
Spoon into oiled muffin tin and bake at 350° for 20 minutes or until lightly browned at the edges and a toothpick comes out clean. Makes 12 muffins.
* Or use another 1-1⁄2 cups of all-purpose flour.
[Stacie Robinson is a wildlife ecologist, working at the U of M vet school researching wildlife diseases. Enjoying the outdoors has given her an enthusiasm for wild foods as well as whole foods.]