Wild Rice Salad for Thanksgiving, Two Ways
I’m always a little bit perplexed when people write about wild rice. Most articles make a point of stressing that wild rice is not a rice at all, but instead the grain of an aquatic grass. They’re right that wild rice isn’t the same thing as the Asian cereal we call rice, but the fact that wild rice is the grain of an aquatic grass is hardly the differentiating factor—both types of rice are the grains of aquatic grasses!
It’d sort of be the equivalent of telling someone that a dog isn’t the same thing as a horse because a dog walks on four legs and has fur.
What really makes wild rice different? The shortest answer is that wild rice is a cereal native to the Americas, and belongs to the genus Zizania in the family of grasses named Poaceae. Asian rice, on the other hand, is native to Asia (or, at least, it was domesticated in Asia), and belongs to the genus Oryza, which is also in the family Poaceae. Not only do they belong to the same biological family, but they also share membership in the tribe Oryzeae, making them relatively close cousins. (More distant cousins include corn, wheat, oats, millet, and barley—all grassy members of Poaceae.)
I don’t really have any point here beyond that I’m tired of reading lazy writing that pretends at expertise while betraying the opposite, and I have little interest in making the same mistake. Let’s just say they’re both grains from different plants that belong to the same tribe of grasses and leave it at that. There’s more interesting stuff to say about wild rice, anyway.
In particular, that it was, and is, a critically important grain for many Native American tribes, particularly ones centered around the Midwestern United States and farther north into Canada. Reading up on its history, I was struck by the sustainable harvesting method those tribes use: They guide canoes and other small boats onto the waters where the rice grasses grow, then gently thresh the grains from the grass with sticks.
Most of the rice falls into the boat, but some tumbles down into the water, ensuring future generations of the grass will seed and grow. The technique is also delicate enough to avoid any major damage to the existing plant, allowing for subsequent harvests. (Martha Steward once did a nice little feature on the tradition of harvesting wild rice; just ignore the intro where she says that “wild rice is not really rice at all, it’s actually a long-grained marsh grass,” as if that’s a particularly meaningful way of differentiating them.)
Like the turkey, cranberries, and squash that grace most Thanksgiving tables, wild rice is a crop that’s native to North America, making it an appealing choice for the holiday. To that end, I’ve whipped up a couple fairly classic recipes starring this nutty, earthy grain. I’m not exactly sure how to classify them. They could easily be called “warm wild rice salads,” though “wild rice dressing” would work, too. A lot of people would be tempted to call this a wild rice stuffing, but it’s not really that unless you decide to pack it into the cavity of a bird and proceed from there (my recipe does not offer instructions for this).
No matter the nomenclature, here’s what they are: The first plays up those earthy flavors with sautéed mushrooms, celery root, and toasted pine nuts; the other takes a brighter, fruitier turn, with quick-pickled apples and plump dried cranberries. In supermarkets, much of what’s sold as “wild rice” is a blend of brown rice varietals with a handful of wild rice thrown in like confetti. For these recipes, you’ll want the genuine article, so check the ingredients list to be sure it includes nothing but wild rice. In some parts of the country, the easiest option may be to shop online and buy wild rice from the tribes who grow it, such as Red Lake Nation.
Wild Rice Salad With Mushrooms, Celery Root, and Pine Nuts
With both salads, I start by boiling the wild rice until tender. This can take a while, somewhere around 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes more. I like wild rice most once the grains have swelled and cracked; this is when they have what I find to be the most pleasant chew.
You can cook the rice in water, or you can use chicken or vegetable stock (or some combination of stock and water) if you want to infuse a deeper savory flavor into the grains.
While the rice is cooking, I prepare the other components of the salad, toasting the pine nuts, and sautéing the mushrooms and vegetables (diced celery root, onion, and celery) in oil until the mushrooms are browned and the vegetables are tender. If you want, you can also add some rehydrated dried mushrooms, such as porcini, to the mix, just to deepen the flavor even more.
To finish it, I toss the rice with the mushrooms, vegetables, and nuts, then mix in some minced fresh parsley and chives, and season to taste with a little cider vinegar—not so much that it makes the rice tart, but just enough to balance out all the earthy, savory flavors.
Wild Rice Salad With Quick-Pickled Apples and Dried Cranberries
Instead of playing up the earthy notes of wild rice, as I did in the other recipe, this one goes for contrast, with a sweet-tart blast from plump dried cranberries and crisp pickled apples.
The apples are easy: I just soak them in a brine made from white wine vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. I pour the hot brine on top of the apples, but then chill it all rapidly with an ice bath. White wine vinegar has a clean taste that keeps the apple flavor bright, but the relative neutrality of rice wine vinegar would be a good choice as well (and both help preserve the apple’s natural color).
To balance out all that tangy, fruity brightness, I also add toasted pecans, and some diced red onion and celery that I’ve sautéed in butter until tender.
Whichever you choose (and no matter whether you think of it as a salad, a dressing, or a stuffing), they’ll be a welcome addition to the Thanksgiving table.
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