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Friday, June 19, 2015

Hot Weather Dining- Minnesota Wild Rice, Chicken and Grape Salad

Okay, so here's the thing--I am a northern Minnesota woman.  I lived on the shore of Lake Superior, an area warmly referred to by Minnesotans as "Cooler by the Lake" said with a modest twinkle in one's eye.

I LOVED that cool summertime breeze off the Lake when I was working in my gardens on a hot day.  (Yes, it DOES get hot in northern Minnesota, too). In my opinion, that breeze was a piece of heaven on earth.  I have never been a really big fan of hot hot days and high humidity.  What then, am I doing living on a sailboat in a warmer part of the U.S. (where tulips and lilacs actually DO bloom in May--unheard of in Duluth) with every intention of moving father south as the seasons advance?  Can't explain it, but it IS the plan.

So, when 90 degree days hit here in Annapolis in May, I got just a little panicked.  I became fixated on these suddenly VERY important questions,  "Am I going to be able to adjust to this heat? To 85% humidity?  Where is my cool Lake Superior breeze?  Do I really belong here?"  By 10 AM, I was dreading the thought of heating up the boat by using the stove to make dinner later that evening.  Even the thought of eating hot food was a little distressing.  I needed a plan and I needed it fast. The plan I came up with was, if I could identify a list of dishes that both my husband and I agreed were really satisfying and that would require little use of the stove, I might just lick this "heat" thing.  I could look sweltering, sticky hot days squarely in the eye and say, "Hah!  I can do this.  You do not scare me."

My first "emergency heat-defying dinner" (EHDD "Ed" for short) was the St. Augustine Gazpacho that I wrote about.   My next choice for an EHDD was the classic Minnesota Chicken, Wild Rice and Grape salad.  For me, this was a no-brainer selection.  I've eaten this salad many times over the years; it's nutritious, tasty and if you buy baked chicken, it does not even require a stove to cook the chicken.  But, I discovered something rather interesting in Annapolis when I went to the grocery store to buy a can of pre-cooked wild rice.  I can find my way around a grocery store pretty well usually, but nowhere could I find canned wild rice.  So, I did the next best thing.

I found two middle-aged store representatives conversing (an important decision at hand, no doubt, such as "Avocados--next to the tomatoes or with the mango display?") and I figured they looked like they knew what was what, so I asked them, "Can you tell me where the canned wild rice would be?"  A pause while the two gentlemen's brows furrowed in synchrony. You know that look on a person's face when you KNOW the person you're talking to has absolutely no idea what you are talking about, but their standard of good customer service will not allow them to say, "I have NO idea what the heck you are talking about?" Instead, they quickly turned my question into a "contest" to see which of them could come the closest to satisfying this apparently odd customer request.  While one of the store representatives confidently led the way to a box of Uncle Ben's "Wild" Rice, the other one narrowed his eyes thoughtfully and blurted, "What would you use tha__?" before thinking better of his question and then with obvious relief,  reached for a tiny little 4 oz. package labeled "Minnesota Wild Rice:  Paddy Grown" and handed it to me.  What?  Are Annapolitans afraid to eat more than a miniscule amount of wild rice?  I could see I was going to be using the pressure cooker that evening after all.  Thank goodness I'd moved to Annapolis and brought my own supply of wild rice with me.
Wild rice grows WILD in Northern MN and is harvested by many Native Americans in canoes with two beater sticks as flails and a pole for propulsion. Hard working native people go out where the wild rice happily grows without extra encouragement from humans, and they very slowly travel through the shallow water, bending the stalks toward the canoe and thwacking it with two beater sticks to get the rice to fall into the canoe.
 There are those who do produce rice commercially, however, they are required to do it in the same manner in which it has been done for hundreds of years by native Anashinaabe.  They have discovered that it is a "crop" that does not like to bend itself to the will of humans.  Wild rice likes to grow where wild rice likes to grow.
The variation in wild rice (and there IS variation) comes from the manner in which the rice is parched.  Native peoples learned long ago that wild rice can be stored indefinitely if the seeds have been parched in fire.  In northern Minnesota, you may see freshly harvested and parched rice sold by the pound in various places as you drive along--sometimes at a gas station or other rural store.  A place along the road might sell chain saw carvings of bears and eagles or other artwork unique to northern Minnesota, and alongside their sign may be another little homemade sign that says --  "Wild Rice  $  /pound."  In the grocery stores, one can find a selection of wild rice with various labels on them, some with darker grains than others, from near black to medium brown.  And the labels proudly display exactly where the rice was harvested.

For the uninitiated, one should not expect wild rice to taste like white rice or brown rice.  Wild rice is, in fact, NOT rice at all.  It is a type of annual water-grass seed  "zizania aquatica." Regardless of that fact, no one complains about the name.  After all, we call LOTS of things by names which REALLY don't belong to them. Horse "shoes" for example or "Klondike" bar which everyone knows does NOT come from the Klondike.  "Recipe for success" when everyone knows there IS no recipe.  Nobody has ever really seen a "glass ceiling," but you would not want to argue its' existence.  Need I go on?   It's a little difficult to describe the flavor of wild rice, but I would say it has a subtle nutty flavor and if it is overcooked, the grain splits so that the inside extrudes, which is nice, as far as I'm concerned.

Minnesota  Chicken, Wild Rice and Grape Salad
So, in the end I cooked my own wild rice in the pressure cooker that evening.  Rather than 50 minutes, it cooked in 15 minutes under high pressure and done.  Voila!  I like to cook up a lot of wild rice at once and freeze it in 2 c. freezer boxes on the boat so next time I don't have to heat up the boat galley unnecessarily.  (We are fortunate to have a freezer on NORTHERN STAR.  If you do not, you could safely cook up however much you plan to eat in the next four days. as long as it's going to be refrigerated.)  I assembled the following recipe which keeps quite well, I would say, at least 3 days.  We also brought it to a little potluck Friday night get-together at the marina and shared it with others.  The participants said they liked it.  Kinda hard to tell.  After all, they hadn't come to the potluck knowing they would be expected to eat some "foreign" dish.

If you have an opportunity to buy wild rice in a package that is not ashamed to state on its' label that it was wild harvested in northern Minnesota I highly recommend you try it.  There are several wonderful recipes I would suggest that showcase the wild rice--Chicken Wild Rice soup (yummmm), Wild Rice bread and more.  So here it is:

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