Wild rice is one of the great misnomers in food, for "The Caviar of Grains" as it is sometimes called, is neither wild nor a rice. Actually, wild rice is an aquatic grass indigenous to the lake district of Minnesota and the bordering Canadian lands -- and now 80 percent of it is cultivated.

Until about 30 years ago, most wild rice was harvested by the Indians, processed in the traditional, centuries-old manner and consumed locally. Today that is no longer the case; most of the wild rice sold in this country is either farmed on the lakes of Minnesota or grown in carefully controlled paddies in Minnesota and California.

Minnesota wild rice generally is sold in boxes for about $14 a pound and varies in quality both from box to box and from distributer to distributer. There are no standards for the grading of wild rice, but the best quality is found in the longest grains with a very dark brown to jet black color. All grains should be clean and unbroken.

The color of the grains affects the cooking time (the darker the color, the longer time needed so all grains should be uniform) and in a minor way the taste (the lighter colored grains are not as nutty in flavor). Broken grains cook in less time than undamaged grains.

Wild rice has a very big, nutty, fermented earthiness to its taste, and many people, on first encountering plain wild rice, find it too strong. If you are unfamilar with the taste of wild rice, and would like to learn a little more about it, first buy one of the boxes of mixed wild and long grain rices and prepare it according to the manufacturer's directions -- but without the addition of the seasoning package.

Most of the wild rice sold in this country (over 60 percent according to the Minnesota Wild Rice Council) is used in mixes of that type, where the flavor is milder and more pleasing to many people. If you like the flavor of the wild rice in the mix, then consider buying plain wild rice.

Here are the basic cooking techniques and some recipes: STOVETOP COOKING (Makes about 2 cups cooked wild rice)

2/3 cup uncooked wild rice

2 cups beef broth, chicken broth or water (depending on how the rice will be used later)

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)

Rinse the wild rice under running hot tap water for 1 minute to insure that it is clean. In a saucepan set over medium high heat, combine the wild rice, broth or water and salt and bring to a boil, stirring once or twice. When the liquid reaches a full rolling boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until rice is tender (almost all the grains should be split and puffed), about 35 to 45 minutes. OVEN METHOD (Makes about 2 cups cooked wild rice)

2/3 cup uncooked wild rice

2 cups beef broth, chicken broth or water (depending on how the rice will be used later)

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)

Combine the wild rice, broth or water and salt in a 1-quart ovenproof casserole dish and cover tightly. Bake until wild rice is tender, about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, at 325 degrees, or bake at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. WILD RICE AS A CEREAL (1 serving)

Without any question, this is my favorite way to eat wild rice. It is one of the least known uses for this grain, even though it is probably the oldest way of eating wild rice and was for hundreds of years the primary manner of consumption by the Indians of Minnesota.

1/2 to 3/4 cup of cooked (in water) wild rice

Large handful fresh berries (raspberries, blueberries or strawberries)

2 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup

About 1/4 cup whipping cream

Place wild rice in a cereal bowl. Add a large handful of fresh berries (raspberries are my favorite, though blueberries and strawberries also taste delicious) and pour enough maple syrup onto the wild rice to sweeten it to your taste. Finally, pour a quarter cup or so of cream onto the cereal and send it to the table.

If it seems like an extravagant way to use wild rice, then save this breakfast idea for a special occasion when you have guests or use it as part of a brunch buffet. POPPED WILD RICE

Another way to serve wild rice for breakfast, or as a nutritional snack at any time of the day, is to pop it, in much the same way you would pop corn (not in one of the popcorn poppers, though).

Oil for popping

Wild rice

Salt, garlic, celery salt or parmesan cheese for seasoning (optional)

Pour enough oil in a small saucepan to rise into the bottom of a strainer resting securely in the pot.

When the oil and the strainer are hot, about 400 to 425 degrees, add a handful of wild rice to the oil in the strainer (about 1/4 cup). In 3 or 4 seconds the rice will have popped. Immediately remove from the oil by lifting out the strainer. Drain on paper toweling. Repeat until you have popped as much wild rice as you need, then season, if you want, with salt, garlic or celery salt, or some very finely grated parmesan. Serve as you would popcorn as a snack, or leave unseasoned and use as a popped cereal (recipe above). WILD RICE BUTTERMILK PANCAKES (Makes 8 to 10 large pancakes)

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk

3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup cooked wild rice (cooked in water)

Fresh fruit, maple syrup and cold unsalted butter, for serving

Combine all the ingredients except the wild rice in a mixing bowl and beat well with a wire wisk until smooth. Add the wild rice and stir together. Bake on a lightly buttered griddle, flipping once when bubbles appear on top and the edges are firm. Serve with fresh fruit, maple syrup and thin pats of cold unsalted butter. MIXED GRAIN MUSHROOM CASSEROLE (8 servings)

This nutritionally packed casserole, made with wild rice, barley and brown rice flavored with mushrooms, has a big earthy flavor that makes it perfect for cold winter days.

1/2 cup wild rice

1/2 cup pearl barley

1/2 cup brown rice

1/4 cup oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, chopped

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 pound mushrooms, thickly sliced

3 1/2 cups beef broth

1 teaspoon crushed dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon crushed dried oregano


Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the grains in a mixing bowl and set aside. Pour the oil into a 2- to 3-quart casserole (in which it is safe to saute') and place over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and garlic and saute' until tender and translucent, but not browned, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the mixed grains and saute' for 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a separate saute' pan placed on medium high heat. When very hot, add the mushrooms and saute' quickly, stirring frequently, until mushrooms are hot and have just absorbed the butter, about 1 minute. Immediately remove from the heat.

Add the broth, herbs and mushrooms to the casserole with the onions and mixed grains and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then cover tightly and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.