ACTUALLY , THERE'S no such thing as wild rice. It never was rice and today most of it isn't wild anymore. The major portion that makes its way to market is cultivated in paddies.
About 12 years ago scientists figured out how to produce a crop of wild rice under controlled conditions. Before that it was harvested from lakes and rivers, producing only about 500,000 pounds a year in Minnesota where 75 percent of the crop grows. With the introduction of commercial paddies total Minnesota production this year climbed to over 3,000,000 pounds.
This might lead you to believe the bottom has dropped out of the market for this exotic, crunchy, nutty grain. But don't go rushing to the store for a new bargain. While wild rice may not be in the caviar and foie gras category, at $15 a pound it makes filets look cheap. On the other hand a pound of wild rice serves many more than a pound of filet -- about 16 people.
Even though this has been a bumper crop year for the misnamed speciality -- it's really the grain of a grass -- well over half of the production goes to commercial uses -- to restaurants, to producers of long grain and wild rice mixtures you find on the grocers' shelves. And consumption is up about 10 or 12 percent.
"We are never going to see prices come down because of the demand," said a wild rice grower at the Newspaper Food Editors Conference last month. He added: "rice priced in scare years is never repriced down during boom years and the rice lasts forever."
Unless, of course, you live in Minneapolis where, because of the bumper crop, they are having a price war and wild rice is selling for $3.89 a pound. Washingtonians aren't likely to see that price but they can do a lot better buying by mail.
Even with the cultivation of wild rice it remains a romantic and exotic food, in part because of its price, in part because of the way it must be harvested in the lakes and rivers where it still grows wild. Any wild rice taken from public waters must be harvested by the old Indian methods, from a canoe with sticks. Pickers need a license and any wild rice located on an Indian reservation can be harvested only by those living on the reservation.
Like other things growing in the wild, the crop has good and bad years.
Even the cultivated wild rice is subject to the vagaries of water levels, weather, insects, blight and birds. Jeno Palucci, who stands for pizza among other successful investments, invested a lot of money into the cultivation of wild rice but finally gave up. When he did he said: "There's nothing wilder than wild rice."
Long before white men were introduced to wild rice, Indians were living off it, some years better than others. In the good years the Indians who lived in the wild rice region were noted for their size and healthy appearance. lIn addition to its wonderful flavor, wild rice has more protein than many other grains. It is also an excellent source of carbohydrates and was the only source during the fall and winter for the Indians.
For most of us it is a far too precious source. As the author of a booklet about Minnesota wild rice has so keenly observed: "Most people eat wild rice only on special occasions -- with a meal served at an expensive restaurant, as part of a duck dinner served by a friend, or perhaps as stuffing or a side dish at a family Thanksgiving dinner."
And in a masterpiece of understatement the anonymous author goes on to say: "People have to get over the price hurdle before they begin to use wild rice as much as they would like to."
And that was written when wild rice was selling for $5 a pound.
Eating wild rice "naked" is a luxury, but it combines so well with other foods, a little will go a long way. Wild rice combined with white or brown rice to extend it adds its own distinctive texture to the mixture. In combination with meat, fish and poultry, with vegetables the taste still comes through.
Minnesotans, and others who can buy it at good prices, also put it in desserts, even cakes. To me that's a waste.
many places will sell wild rice by mail. Here are three of the most reasonable: Sara Bay Company, Arden Plaza-Suite 170, 3585 Lexington Ave. North, St. Paul, Minn. 55112 -- $8 a pound, delivered.
MacGregor Wild Rice Company, P.O. Box 288, Aitkin, Minn., 56431 -- bulk shipments -- 25 pounds at $5.40 per pound plus United Parcel shipping charge for 25 pounds of $5.94.
Gibbs Wild Rice, Inc., Route 2, Deer River, Minn. 56636 -- $5.50 per pound in boxes by the case. Shipping charge for case of 12 is $3.46; shipping charge for case of 24 is $5.75. STEEPED WILD RICE
I was first introduced to this method of cooking wild rice by Abigail McCarthy. Since that time I have found that most Minnesotans I know prepare wild rice this way. Actually it is steeping rather than cooking.
Cover desired amount of wild rice with boiling water. Cover the pan and let stand for 20 minutes. Drain, repeat the process three more times. Salt the latter the last time. Drain and dry rice a moment or two over low heat. Then use in other dishes or serve "naked," tossed with melted butter, mixed with sliced toasted almonds, with mushrooms and onions sauteed in butter or with pine nuts. WILD RICE SAUTE (6 to 10 servings) 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter 2 garlic cloves, pressed 1 cup small slices jicama (water chestnuts can be substituted) 1/4 pound fresh pea pods White pepper and salt, to taste 1 cup sliced carrots, cooked just until tender and drained 4 to 6 cups cooked wild rice, 1 to 1 1/2 cups uncooked
In a heavy skillet, melt butter over medium heat and saute the garlic with the jicama and the pea pods 3 to 5 minutes, turning gently with a spatula from time to time.
Be careful not to break jicama or pea pods. When pea pods are still quite crisp, sprinkle with white pepper and salt and stir in carrots and wild rice. Continue cooking, covered, just until the carrots and the wild rice are heated through. SQUASH AND SAUSAGE CASSEROLE WITH WILD RICE (8 servings) 1 cup wild rice 3 cups boiling water 1 pound pork sausage, crumbled and cooked half of the time recommended on the label or just enough to render most of the fat; drain fat 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste 2 large acorn squash, quartered lengthwise and seeded 3 cups cooked and buttered Brussels sprouts, or peas
Pour boiling water over rice and let stand about 10 minutes. Add the crumbled, half-cooked and drained sausage and salt, if needed. Pour this into a 9 x 13 inch baking pan or similar shallow casserole. Place squash quarters on top of sausage and rice; cover tightly and bake at 350 degrees 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours. Just before serving, fill squash centers with Brussels sprouts.