The all-black wild rice found on grocery store shelves has nothing on the official state grain of Minnesota.
Like its domestic cousins, wild rice (Zizania palustris and Z. aquatica) is the seed of certain grasses that grow in shallow water. Unlike white, brown, and other domestic rices (Oryza spp.), wild rice is native to North America — primarily, the northern states from Minnesota eastward, and adjacent Canadian provinces. This border-straddling band is similar to the zone where maple syrup is produced. It’s no coincidence that both wild rice and maple syrup were used extensively by the Woodland Indian tribes, particularly the Ojibwe, who call wild rice manoomin (also spelled mahnomin; the Dakota word for it is psin) and consider it a sacred gift from the Creator.
Wild rice is the official Minnesota state grain. America’s largest concentration of native wild-rice beds is in northern Minnesota, where the plants grow in shallow, calm areas of many lakes, slow-moving streams, and marshes that are not stagnant. Genuine wild rice is rich, nutty, roasty, and earthy all at once, with a heady fragrance and gentle toothiness. I love the description given by Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich in her important and unique cookbook, Original Local, in which she describes the “wonderful aroma of toasted nut and lake and smoke” given off by cooked manoomin.
The appearance and flavor of wild rice vary, depending on where and when it was harvested and how it was processed. One thing that does not vary in Minnesota is the method used to harvest genuine wild rice, which is regulated by state law. Except in very rare, specific cases, no mechanical devices such as motorboats may be used. Maximum size of watercraft and other equipment is specified, and regulations are in place to ensure that the health of the resource is maintained.
In a method that has been used for centuries, wild rice is harvested in late summer from canoes (or small flat-bottomed skiffs), usually in two-person teams. The person in the rear uses a long pole to slowly move the canoe through a stand of wild-rice plants, which typically grow 3 to 8 feet above the water’s surface. The person in front uses long, thin sticks to bend the supple stems over the front of the canoe and to brush ripe kernels off the plants and into the bottom of the canoe. As reported by renowned forager Samuel Thayer in his excellent book, The Forager’s Harvest, a two-person team of experienced ricers working in a good area can collect about a bushel of unfinished wild rice per hour.
Like wheat, the rice kernels have an inedible outer hull that must be removed. In the traditional processing method still used by many ricers, freshly harvested rice is dried in the sun for several days. It’s then parched in open kettles over a wood fire until the hull is brittle and the kernels are hard. Next, the hull is loosened from the kernel, traditionally by placing the parched rice in a hole in the ground that’s lined with hide, wood, or metal, then treading on the rice in a rhythmic motion to rub the hulls off, a process often called jigging. The rice is then transferred to a birch-bark basket or other container and tossed into the air so breezes can blow away the lightweight hulls while the heavier kernels fall back into the basket. The resulting rice may be light brown, dark brown, or greenish tan, and often appears mottled.
Wild rice processed as described above is identified as hand-finished or hand-parched, to separate it from rice that may have been harvested traditionally but finished with mechanical roasters and separators. That type of rice is still the genuine article, but it may not have the slightly woodsy flavor associated with parching over wood fires.
In stark contrast, “cultivated wild rice” is not wild at all. It has been selectively bred to produce a high-yielding crop that is typically grown in large, artificially made paddies designed for mechanical harvesting. All the grains are a uniform size and color, generally black. It is tougher and takes longer to cook (an hour or more, compared to 15 to 20 minutes for most manoomin), and it lacks the distinctive taste and aroma of natural wild rice. Most cultivated wild rice is grown in California, but some is grown in Minnesota, so you can’t always rely on a “made in Minnesota” tag when you’re looking for the genuine article; instead, look for words like naturally wild or genuine on the label. Most co-ops carry genuine wild rice; you may also buy it online from Ojibwe Indian bands including White Earth and Bois Forte.
Breakfast Skillet with Wild Rice, Hazelnuts, and Wild Berries
When you’re roaming the Minnesota woods in summer, you can often gather a mixed bag of wild berries. You might not get enough (particularly of any one kind) to make a pie with, but a mixture works really well in this easy breakfast dish. If you are substituting purchased blueberries, buy the smallest ones you can find. When buying strawberries, choose only small, locally grown berries; cut store-bought raspberries or blackberries in half before using. Hazelnuts also grow in the wild throughout most of Minnesota and can be harvested in late summer to early fall — if you can beat the deer and squirrels to them! Otherwise, you’ll find whole, skin-on, unsalted hazelnuts (also called filberts) in the grocery store with the nuts sold for baking. Note: Be sure to use genuine wild rice for this dish; paddy-grown rice takes a lot longer to cook (and isn’t nearly as good as the real stuff).
- 4¾ cups water
- 2½ tablespoons baking soda
- 2 ounces whole, skin-on, unsalted hazelnuts (not quite ½ cup)
- 1 tablespoon sunflower oil or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 cup genuine wild rice, rinsed (see headnote)
- ¼ cup diced dried apples
- 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup, plus more for serving
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1½ cups mixed fresh wild berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, serviceberries, and strawberries (see headnote for substitution of domestic berries)
- Heavy cream or half-and-half, for serving, optional
- Bring 2 cups of the water to a boil in a nonreactive medium saucepan. Add the baking soda; the water will foam up. Add the hazelnuts. Cook for 3 minutes. Drain in a strainer and rinse with cold water. Rub the skins off with your fingers, holding each nut under a thin stream of running water. Squeeze each nut firmly as you’re skinning, to split it into halves. Place on a paper towel–lined plate, then blot the nuts dry.
- Warm the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the split hazelnuts. Cook, stirring frequently until the nuts are turning golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer the nuts to a bowl.
- Add the butter to the same skillet and heat until melted. Stir in the wild rice and the remaining 2¾ cups water. Adjust the heat so the water boils very gently and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Stir in the dried apples, maple syrup, and salt. Reduce the heat slightly and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender and the liquid has cooked away, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Stir in the hazelnuts. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, for about 5 minutes.
- Scatter the berries over the top. Serve with cream, if desired, and more maple syrup, so each person can add some to taste.