Manoomin and the Beavers
The real word for real wild rice is the Ojibwe one: manoomin. It grows naturally in my front yard, and has done so as long as there have been beavers living and working in Indian Creek; in other words, for ages. Every spring we can hear our neighbors upcreek trying to blast out the beavers with dynamite, but it’s no use: the beavers always return. And when they do, as if to flip off the blasters, they build an even bigger dam. This house of sticks ensures that that the water level will remain constant all summer long, turns Indian Creek into their own private aquaculture pond, and provides the perfect growing conditions for the wild rice.
The most important thing about wild rice is not that it grows in beaver-controlled shallow creeks, or that it’s high in protein and gluten-free, or that it’s the country’s only native grain, but simply this: the stuff is beyond delicious. The dull, taupe kernels cook into bent hook-shaped grains and are smoky, earthy, and light. It isn’t sticky like other kinds of rice. Wild rice doesn’t collect into a heap on your fork but instead drops into your mouth in a loose slide, the delicate grains popping under your teeth.
And real wild rice has aroma, like tea. Two days ago, we picked up our finished rice at the Dewandeler’s parching shed on White Earth Reservation, where we’d dropped it off to be toasted and winnowed, and during the process the rice had picked up some of the funky blue poplar smoke from the fire and mixing with the clear water acidity of its creek origins the two scents together filled the car with a thick, dark yeasty fog. Fresh rice smells comforting–like the best of the world’s starches–and instantly familiar.
Sadly, only a small percentage of the wild rice in this region gets harvested, due to a rule requiring natural rice to be hand-harvested by canoe. It’s a traditional, native process that is, like many traditional ways, beautiful but hella slow. But that’s the way Aaron and his dad do it: with Aaron pushing the long duck-billed paddle pole, propelling the canoe through the thick stands and Maurice sitting in front, pulling the tall rice over the canoe with one stick and whacking it with the other. Slowly, gradually, the rice rains into their plastic-lined canoe. When it rises to Maurice’s shins they come in and unload at the dock. They brought in about a hundred pounds, in two batches–a humble amount for them, but good enough.
We brought it over to the Dewandeler’s parching shed on the Ponsford Prairie, a third-generation family of wild rice parchers. Lewie, the father, passed on a couple of years ago, and he was a treasure. A seasonal worker, Lewie was a logger, a trapper, a farmer, a wild rice parcher, and a gifted winter storyteller. I’ll never forget him rolling around the twirling rice barrel in an old office chair dispensing wisdom and bullshit in equal measure.
Provenance of the rice was really important to Lewie. By looking at the kernals he could tell from which local body of water it had come. “Rice from Mitchell Dam is short and fat, like coffee beans. Rice from up north into Canada is longer and straighter. Your rice, Indian Creek rice, is small. It picks up a lot of parch, and a lot of smoke.” His son Rich said the same thing when we went to drop off our rice last week, and added, “I just took in some rice from the Indian Creek reservoir north of you guys; I can put yours all together.” It’s nice to find a parcher who cares about terroir.
And he had big news for us. “We’re getting organic certification this year.” We had to laugh. This is a set-up for a rural “educated fool” joke, right? Wild rice grows naturally in the creek every year and takes no inputs. Of course it’s organic.
We never see another person on the creek in front of our house, and the nearby farms are miles away, but Indian Creek jumps with wildlife. Swan pairs arrive in the spring and fall, ducks and loons and territorial red wing blackbirds are on the warpath, and year-round, we see the beavers. One night last summer after a dinner party, Aaron and I walked down the hill and sat on a stump overlooking the creek to drink our last glass of red. We watched the silver moonlit beaver bumps bustle around, and the sound of their beaver tail-slap rang out over the water. The rice was nearly ripe. I wondered: Did the beavers pay any attention to it? Did they use it in any way?
It’s a funny little ecosystem, this front yard, and might be interesting enough to hold my interest for quite some time. When I get old, I will be like everyone else and watch birds. Until then, the beavers.
(And . . . it’s time now for someone to come and get me. I need a city-intervention, stat.)
(For more of my wild rice recipes, check out this Country Living story, and to purchase real wood-parched wild rice–the brown stuff, not the black–go to the Dewandeler’s FB page (Lake Region Wild Rice) or White Earth Reservation wild rice.)
Wild Rice and Lentil Mujadarra
I have long made the wonderful Arab dish mujadarra with white rice and lentils, but I think it’s even better with wild rice. The sweetness in this dish comes from a large amount of caramelized onions and a commitment to browning the entire mixture until crusty-brown in a heavy pan, as one does with hash. Delicious with grilled meat, such as lamb or chicken, mujadarra is also pretty glorious alone, with cucumber yogurt.
1 cup wood-parched wild rice (about 3 cups cooked rice)
3/4 cup green de puy lentils
5 tablespoons butter
2 large Vidalia onions, diced (about 3 cups diced)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin seed
2 teaspoons minced thyme
pinch ground cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
Cook the wild rice and lentils separately: Rinse the wild rice well in a fine mesh sieve until the water runs clear and place in a pot. Cover with 2 cups of water, a lot of salt (wild rice needs briny water in which to cook) and a dried bay leaf, or fresh thyme or rosemary frond, whatever you have on hand. Bring to a simmer, cover tightly, and cook over low heat until the rice curls into a “c” shape, about 25 minutes. Drain any excess water.
Rinse the green lentils, cover with water by 2 inches, salt heavily and add a dried bay or fresh herb sprig. Bring to a simmer and cook gently, stirring once in awhile, until the lentils are just done: soft but not blown-out. Drain and do not rinse.
Heat a heavy (cast-iron) skillet over medium-heat and add most of the butter (4 tablespoons) and the onions. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the onions are dark at the edges and soft wilted amber brown, about 25 minutes. Add the garlic and stir to cook lightly, another two minutes.
Add the lentils and rice, coriander, cumin, thyme, and cinnamon. Cook over a controlled high heat, flipping every three to four minutes, until a good measure of browned crust has been incorporated into the whole. Add the last tablespoon of butter for gloss, and any salt and pepper if it needs it, and serve from the hot pan.
PS: I am not talking about black cultivated wild rice in this piece, the shiny kind that you can buy in a box everywhere. That stuff has a certain nuttiness going for it, but the flavor is a big zero compared to the original. Botanically, they’re not even the same plant. Growers plant cultivated rice in rows, flood the field, drain it and harvest it with a combine, and then they parch it with steam. No wood smoke, and no beavers, required. Seek out the good rice, for real.