Friday, November 18, 2011

Wild Rice

In a Native American magazine I recently came across there was an article about wild rice and its meaning to Native American people. I learned quite a bit. It seems that wild rice is the only grain indigenous to North America. It has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice and like any true rice, is gluten free.  It has a nuttier, crunchier texture than any other rice. Sometimes it’s mixed with brown, white, black and/or red rices for a “wild rice blend” which is really delicious.

Wild rice grows in rivers, creeks and shallow lakes and was harvested by canoe, mainly by the Chippewa/Ojibwa Indians of the Great Lakes Region (northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and west-central Ontario (Canada). 

It's considered a sacred plant by the Native Americans and is hearty. But the plant requires a real winter for the seed to break dormancy, so climate change could have a negative impact on this food source as temperatures increase. Conservation programs are underway to reinvigorate wild rice growing regions to benefit not only humans, but wildlife, too. Where rice is abundant it drives biodiversity in those areas. Wild rice feeds waterfowl (mallards, ducks, etc.) and the beds create habitat for breeding and nesting. Moose, muskrats and minute invertebrates all feed on or use wild rice as well. 

Many Native American people today rely on this rice for income. Wild rice is harvested by hand, so it is not inexpensive. This is another reason why it’s sometimes mixed with other rices in rice blends in order to cut the cost. I find this to be a great idea for not only cost reasons, but also because an all-wild-rice dish can be a bit overwhelming.

So how did the Native American people typically prepare wild rice? I read that it was often served with berries (such as blueberries, blackberries or cranberries) and meat. Though I haven’t tried that, a couple of ways I like to make it is either warm, mixed with other rices as a side dish to chicken or whatever, or in a salad. At this time of year you’ll find stuffing recipes using wild rice instead of bread for a gluten-free version. Some of them look quite good. This recipe was recommended to me several years ago by my sister-in-law. I modified it slightly by mixing the 2 rices together. The original called for all wild rice.

Wild Rice Salad

2 cups water, divided
½ tsp salt, divided
½  cup wild rice
½ cup brown rice
1 6-oz jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and halved, reserve marinade
1 6-oz. can green peas (or use frozen and cook them)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped green or red bell pepper
3 green onions, chopped with both white and green parts
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
¼ cup toasted slivered almonds, for garnish

1 1/3 cups light flavored oil such as canola or grapeseed
½ cup white vinegar
¼ cup grated Parmesan
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. celery seed
½ tsp. ground white pepper
½ tsp. dry mustard
¼ tsp. paprika
1 clove garlic, minced

First, we’re going to cook each of the rices separately, and later combine them. In 2 pots with lids, bring water and salt to a boil. Add the wild rice to one pot and the brown rice in another one, and stir each well. 
Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer the wild rice for 45 minutes to 1 hour, the brown rice for about 45 minutes (or follow the directions on the bag). Drain excess liquid from both and allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, combine all the dressing ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake well. Chop all the veggies.
When the rices are done cooking, in a large bowl, combine them with the vegetables, reserved artichoke marinade and half of the dressing. Toss well.  

Just before serving, toss again and taste. Add more of the dressing if needed. Taste for salt and sprinkle with the almonds and serve. This is best eaten at room temperature.

For Native American recipes featuring wild rice, consider visiting

Monday, November 7, 2011

Finally "Soup Weather"!

One of my favorite fall soup recipes is one I saw in an issue of Sunset Magazine many years ago. It was a recipe from Deborah Madison (of Chez Panisse and Greens fame), one of my favorite cookbook authors. She embodies much of what inspires me: vegetarian cooking, the Slow Food movement, and eating locally, organically, humanely raised food. The recipe was preceded by an article about different types of squash and as I read the recipe I knew I had to make it. 
Before I continue, let me tell you this: when it comes to many recipes, I usually cut quantities in half, because there are only two of us at home and I don't like leftovers for too many days. But when it comes to this soup, I make the whole recipe.  I never tire of it.

We liked the soup so well I offered to bring it to Thanksgiving dinner one year. Everyone there liked it, too. The following year I brought something else and everyone asked where the soup was!

As you can tell, this thing has become an annual tradition. I make it every Fall because the soup exemplifies this time of year: hearty, earthy, squashy. It can be modified in many ways: by changing up the type of squash used, by adding cream if you choose, or by varying the type of stock added. But no matter how it’s modified, it’s still a fantastic soup. I prefer it without the cream and exactly the way it’s listed in the recipe below because in all the years I’ve made it, I like this way best.

One ingredient that should not be changed out is the sage.  This herb and squash are good friends and totally belong together. The drizzle of the extra virgin olive oil at the end, right before you serve it, is also important, believe it or not, because the fat adds a mouth-feel that puts the soup over the top. I like it better than cream.
Butternut Squash

Squash can be a bit labor-intensive to prepare because some are tough-skinned and hard to get a knife through, while some may be large and hard to hold on to, which is why I like butternut (which can be easily peeled).  

Kabocha Squash
Though acorn squash is small and easy to cut in half without the use of a jack-hammer, it is not one of the more flavorful varieties and it's a little watery. I recommend going the extra mile and using 1-2 pumpkin varieties in addition to the butternut and maybe only a little bit of acorn. Kabocha is perhaps my favorite because it lends the soup lovely color and a deep, rich flavor.

It’s going to be another rainy weekend where I live, and for some of you, snowy. A friend of mine in Idaho got snow the other day and the East Coast has already been hit with it. If you are looking for something comforting to make this weekend to stay warm, get yourself some squash and sage and make this soup. Hopefully it will become an annual favorite of yours as well.

Winter Squash Soup with Sage

2 1/2 to 3 lbs. winter squash
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for the squash
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
12 whole sage leaves, plus 2 Tbsp. chopped
2 onions, finely chopped
chopped leaves from 4 thyme sprigs or 1/4 tsp dried
1/4 cup chopped parsley
salt and freshly milled pepper
2 qts. water or stock
1/2 cup Fontina, pecorino or ricotta salata cheese, diced into small cubes

Preheat oven to 375F. Halve the squashes and scoop out seeds, brush surfaces with oil, stuff cavities with garlic, and place them cut side down on a baking sheet. Bake until tender when pressed with a finger, about 30-40 minutes, depending on size.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat the oil and then drop in the whole sage leaves and fry until speckled and dark, about 1 minute. Set the leaves aside on a paper towel and transfer the oil to a wide soup pot. Add the onions, chopped sage, thyme and parsley and cook over medium heat until the onions have begun to brown around the edges, 12-15 min. Scoop the squash flesh into the pot along with any juices that have accumulated in the pan. Peel the garlic and add it to the pot along with the salt and water or stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes. If the soup becomes too thick, simply add more water/stock to thin it out. Taste for salt.

Depending on the type of squash you've used, the soup will be either smooth or rough. Puree or pass it through a food mill if you want a more refined soup. Ladle into bowls and distribute the cheese over the top. Garnish each bowl with the fried sage leaves, add pepper, and serve.

Courtesy: Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Food & Wine

Food and wine...meant to go together, like Laurel and Hardy, Fred and Ginger, yin and yang...... Though pairing food with wine may seem intimidating if you are new to entertaining/cooking/drinking, you really don't need any fancy degrees to make a wine selection. But if you need help, there are a ton of websites and books available out there should you need some suggestions. While those are a great place to start, I think doing your own homework will take you even farther.

Deciding what to serve with which foods comes from experience. When you one day hear yourself utter these words, you will know you have arrived: "We should open that bottle of ____ to go with this ____ I just made." (You fill in the blanks). When that day comes, you will have a good understanding of the marriage between food and wine.

Though I'm certainly no wine expert, I can tell you what I like. Ultimately it really does just come down to this: no matter what anyone tells you, either you're going to like it, or you won't. 

Often, I hear people say they only like Cabs or Chardonnay or whatever. While I think that's great that they know what they like, I think they are limiting themselves. There are so many wines out there from so many different parts of the world, and each offers new taste experiences. Be open to the differences in, say, a wine from South America or Africa. Consider different grape varietals from what you are used to. Have you ever heard of Gruener Veltliner or Nebbiolo? You may find one downright fabulous. Consider trying varietals that have been rescued from near extinction and are making a comeback, such as Viognier, or the Carmenere grape once grown in France but now thriving in Chile.

Over time, too, our tastes may change. I once drank Chardonnay. Now, I can't stand it. I had to give it up because no matter how many I tasted, I found that only the really expensive ones had the butteriness I was longing for. Most of them left me pucker-mouthed from their ueber-acidity.

These days I'm into Viognier and Pinot Noir. Interestingly enough, though one is white and the other red, they have similar characteristics. Both grapes are finicky and require a great deal of care in their handling. Both do best with climates that offer warm days and cool nights. Both are difficult to grow. I think that's one reason I appreciate them so much. They are also quite versatile with a broad range of foods and can even be enjoyed alone.

My sister introduced me to an Italian grape she enjoys: Nebbiolo. I recently found such a wine for a real bargain and keep going back to get more. I hope the store doesn't run out!

Take advantage of the wine tastings at your local wine shop, or head to a big retailer like Total Wine for a huge range of wines of every conceivable price point. I found a French wine for under $4 there once, which I really liked for an everyday wine. Don't let the price tag of some of these wines discourage you. Price does not necessarily always mean what you think. You may not like the expensive stuff and you may really like a cheaper bottle.

And why are some of them so dang expensive? A lot of factors can affect the price of wine. Limited grape production, for example, or the amount of special handling required. Ice wine, for instance, is usually pricey because the grapes stay on the vine several months longer than usual (most grapes are harvested in September/October). These hang on until the frost comes, intensifying their sugar content, and then the shriveled things have to be hand-picked in the dead of winter. Naturally the more care that goes into production, including the blending that the winemaker oversees, can drive up price, but more isn't always better. What if a $50 bottle doesn't taste good to you? 

Do not be intimidated by wine or the snobs who tell you what to drink. After all, it's just glorified grape juice!

Print Friendly