I grew up thinking wild rice was a real luxury. My Minnesota-born mother bought wee packages of hand-parched, hand-harvested S&H wild rice when I was a child growing up in San Francisco to remind her of her Minnesota home, and it was about the only expensive food our family ever ate.
Once I moved here to Minnesota, I learned about ricing from a friend who hand harvested each year on the Vermilion River in northern Minnesota. If you haven’t riced yourself, I assure you that hand-harvested manomin is worth every penny: from the harvesting itself—a back-aching, incredibly itchy job—through the wood-fueled parching and hand winnowing, hand-harvested rice is an incredibly labor-intensive, and irreplaceable, food. It’s smoky from the wood fires used to parch it, and it cooks up lickety-split.
Because truly wild wild rice grows in rivers and lakes, it’s susceptible to all the destruction that population pressure creates: run-off from nearby agriculture; silting up from docks and dredging; habitat degradation caused by jet skis and power boats, which can uproot the plants. As a result, almost all ricing lakes and rivers are in remote parts of northern Minnesota. Highly populous areas, such as St. Louis Bay in Duluth, once possessed glorious ricing beds, but these have long since been destroyed by industry, boating, and housing. About 150,000–250,000 pounds of lake and river rice are produced each year in Minnesota, and it is a state and reservation treasure.
Most cooks don’t use wild rice from Minnesota’s northern lakes and rivers. Because of hand-harvested and -parched rice’s expense, people commonly buy cultivated rice. Northern farmers in Minnesota first grew this crop in the 1950s; Minnesota remains one of the two largest players in the cultivated paddy rice industry (the other is California, in the northern Sacramento Valley). Cultivated rice is grown much like cranberries: low-lying, marshy land is dyked, the paddies are flooded in springtime, and the rice rises and grows throughout summer. Water is drawn down starting in July, and in August or September, the rice is harvested with combines, then machine dried, parched, and winnowed. The resulting grain costs significantly less than the hand-finished variety. It cooks up more slowly, and it lacks the subtle smokiness of traditional wild rice. Four to six million pounds of cultivated rice are produced in Minnesota each year.
Mississippi Market carries both wild and cultivated rice. The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in northwestern Minnesota grows cultivated rice that’s sold under its brand name, Red Lake Nation Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice. I’ve visited the Red Lake paddies in late fall, after they’ve been drained for the season; they stretch across the depressions of the flat lake region. Like naturally grown lake and river rice, paddy (cultivated) rice self-seeds because so many of the seed heads shatter during mechanical harvesting. If you haven’t cooked with
wild rice before, you may want to start with Red Lake Nation’s Soup Bits—cultivated rice grains that are broken but every bit as flavorful as the more elegant whole ones. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe sells its Native Harvest brand of traditionally harvested lake and river rice in bulk and packages. Buy a bit from Mississippi Market’s bulk aisle to understand the difference in taste and cooking times between the two.
Paddy rice takes significantly longer to cook than hand-parched rice. It’s hard to offer precise cooking times, because they depend on how high your stovetop heat is, the moisture content of the rice, how it was parched, the pot you cook it in, your personal preference in chewiness. I usually cook my hand-harvested and -parched rice in the pressure cooker, which takes about 10 minutes. On the stovetop, it takes more like 20. I use far less water than the recommendations on boxes suggest. But that’s cooking for you: what you prefer is likely to differ significantly from standard, or other cooks’, recommendations.
Here’s the thing: you want the grains to burst open slightly. You can always add more liquid if your pot of rice seems to be absorbing liquid avidly. My starting recommendation would be to build yourself a pot of wild rice with few additions so you can savor the rice without distraction. Here’s how I would do it (and you can turn this into a wild rice soup by adding heavy cream or milk, fish or meat, and leaving out the vinaigrette):
Jan’s Simple Manomin
1–2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or home-rendered lard (we carry this in the meat freezer)
½ cup celery, chopped medium
½ cup onion, sliced or chopped
1 smashed garlic clove
1 cup wild or cultivated wild rice
1.5 cups water or chicken broth
½ c. toasted pecans, hazelnuts, or walnuts
½ cup craisins or lightly cooked and drained cranberries
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
1½ teaspoons sherry, white, or red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and black pepper to taste
fresh chopped parsley
1. Heat a heavy pot on MEDIUM until hot; add oil or fat, and when it shimmers or melts, add celery, onion, and garlic. Cook until ingredients smell good and onion has softened. Do not allow garlic to brown, because it will become bitter.
2. Add wild rice, stir to coat with oil or fat, then add water or broth. Reduce heat to SIMMER; cover, leaving lid slightly ajar, and cook until grains start to burst open. Taste to see if the texture pleases you; cook longer if you like. (You may need to add more liquid to reach that stage.)
3. Once rice has cooked to your taste, drain it into a mixing bowl. Add toasted nuts, craisins or lightly cooked, drained cranberries.
4. Make a vinaigrette from the mustard, vinegar, toasted sesame oil, olive oil, salt, and pepper; whip it up with a fork, then pour over the rice, and use your hands to lightly combine all ingredients. Add parsley, and lightly combine that as well.