In last December’s issue of Cultivating I shared the story of my Dad coming to the Lord just days before he died. In my description of the man he was, I didn’t have the space to talk about his cooking. During the week it was Mom who put dinner on the table because he got home from work too late to get it started, but it was Dad who really cared about food and cooking. He got to exercise that part of him on the weekends, making pots of succulent gumbo or chili so hearty and thick you could almost turn your spoon upside down without losing it. He grilled steaks and shish-kababs when he didn’t have wild game to roast or lake-caught fish to pan-fry. But the food that I most remember him for is his wild rice.
Wild rice was the staple side dish at the wild-game dinners with Dad’s hunting buddies. When we were fortunate enough at home to dine on a goose or turkey Dad had bagged, the accompanying wild rice was a necessity. Eventually almost any “special” dinner at home, lobster, prime rib, or whatever, came to be embellished with a side of his rice recipe. Wild rice equaled feasting, and the mere addition of it to even a humbler entrée meant I was eating like a king.
Wild rice has been harvested and eaten in the northern U.S. and Canada since before Europeans got there. It’s never very plentiful, and so remains a delicacy. In a typical grocery store you might find package of a little bit blended in with other rices in a “long grain rice mix,” or even a small, expensive box of pure wild rice. I wouldn’t bother with these. Set a little of your food budget aside until you can go online and order it by the pound from specialty companies. The more you can manage at a time, the better a value you’re likely to get. Dad used to give me several pounds on my birthday to last me the year. I guard my stash jealously and if you ever taste of it you know I must really love you.
The recipe as Dad gave it to me is One pound bacon or sausage and 1 cup each of chopped celery, onion, and mushrooms, for every pound of uncooked rice. On the rare occasions, I make it I really go for it and double the vegetables as well as using both bacon and sausage. This is not a dish to be half-hearted with.
Wild rice has a hard, dark outer casing; uncooked it should be black or very dark brown.
The evening before making it, Dad used to put the rice in a large pot, cover it with water to an inch or so over the level of the rice, and bring it to boil a few minutes to start splitting open that outer casing. Then he would let it sit in the water overnight. The next day the rice had absorbed most of the water and expanded enough to curl back the somewhat softened outer part, and reveal the lighter grain within. The combination of the soft rice with the chewier, almost nutty shell gives it a texture and mouth feel unlike other rice. If you forgot to soak the rice overnight it’s ok, you can open and soften it just by boiling longer.
But, make sure you don’t throw out the water you boiled it in! That water has a lot of good flavor from the rice, a lot of its essence, and you don’t want to lose any of it. If you added more water than you needed in the beginning, reduce it by boiling it off slowly, stirring now and then because you don’t want burned rice on the bottom. The pot should have a woody, earthy smell by now, as if you’d been boiling chips of seasoned oak.
Meanwhile, take your sausage and/or bacon and cook them up in a pan. Break into pieces bite-size or smaller, and save some of the grease.
At this point I remove the meat and, with a little of the grease coating the pan, put in the chopped vegetables and cook them till tender. Mushrooms are funny to cook, they at first look like they’re doing nothing, then suddenly all the water comes out of them and they shrink way down. By the time the vegetables are getting done, (onions turning translucent, etc.) most of that mushroom water should have cooked off. When it’s looking close to done I add back in the meat a little and simmer it all together briefly, just because I remember Dad doing it that way. If the aroma in your kitchen at this point isn’t driving you mad you’re not human.
Now put stir that lovely meat and vegetable mixture into the rice. Get that bacon or sausage grease you saved and add in as much as you can bring yourself to. Remember that this isn’t health food or even everyday food, this is festal food. You aren’t ready to make this dish until you’re ready to go all in. Continue heating the whole thing low and slow for a little bit, letting the flavors come together and making sure you’ve finished boiling the excess water off. Add salt and pepper to taste. I know there’s already salt in there from the bacon grease, but I shake in a bunch more because that’s how it tastes best to me.
That’s pretty much it. You can serve immediately but this is one of those recipes that if anything is better the second day, so feel free to make it ahead of time. It elevates any meal and is perfect for a holiday dinner with family. It’s not the same as having Dad around for the holidays, but his wild rice is so linked to him in my mind that this might be the best way I can remember him.
It’s also great as leftovers, which my father would sometimes spice up with a splash of Frank’s RedHot. To this day no other hot sauce tastes right to me on wild rice. And in my opinion wild rice is just as tasty cold as it is hot. In fact, I’d understand if you found yourself late at night crouching Gollum-wise in the lurid glow of the open fridge, shoveling it in uncontrollably with a serving spoon or even your bare hands, while you glance furtively around at every slight noise, ready to scurry into the shadows rather than be found in such a state. I’m not admitting anything, of course. I’m just saying I wouldn’t judge if it happened to you.
The image of this recipe served in all its delicious glory is courtesy of Matthew Cyr and used with his permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.