As the leaves turn colour and the air gets crisper, it’s the perfect time to bring the harvest’s bounty to your table. Along with fall classics like butternut squash soup and pumpkin pie, why not include wild rice on the menu? This quintessential autumn dish has been a staple food for indigenous communities for thousands of years, and it’s traditionally harvested in the fall season.
“In late August and early September, people would gather together at the rice beds, and harvest it in canoes,” says Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a member of Alderville First Nation who often harvests rice. “There’s nothing more beautiful than being out on a lake in the fall, gently knocking the grains of wild rice into the canoe.”
Surprisingly, this chewy, elongated grain is not actually a member of the rice family. It’s a semi-aquatic grass that grows annually from seed, mostly in the upper freshwater lakes of Canada, and produces a valuable grain that’s low in fat but high in protein, fibre, B vitamins and minerals.
“I really like that you can get earthiness out of it, but also an umami flavour,” says Chef Rich Francis, a member of the Tetlit Gwich’in and Tuscarora Nations, and a former Top Chef Canada contender.
As Francis says, wild rice is a longstanding delicacy among indigenous peoples, usually mixed with bear grease or duck fat and then added to soups or stews. Aside from being delicious and nutritious, this flavourful food holds cultural significance for many indigenous communities in Canada, many of which celebrate the crop with traditional songs, stories and dances.
“A lot of our food is based around tradition and ceremony,” says Francis. “Every harvest, they’ll be a rice ceremony. We could trade [the wild rice] and it could be used as currency for our people. It was something that was valued, because it was plentiful.”
Of course, there are many ways to eat this versatile grain, and Francis has created some sumptuous dishes that fuse old and new culinary traditions.
“I’ve used it in sushi, as an Asian-Aboriginal fusion,” says Chef Rich. “Or I’ll make a stock out of sweet grass and medicinal sage, and then cook the rice with the stock and water in the oven.”
If it’s your first time cooking wild rice, start simply by boiling a batch in water. Just follow Francis’ advice and have “lots of time on your hands” — wild rice requires ample water (approximately 2 cups of cold water per half cup of wild rice) to cook, and it takes anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour for the grain to split and become tender.
“Coming into the fall season, cook up a little bit more and then store it in the fridge,” he says. “Then incorporate it into a soup, or serve it in a cold presentation, like in a salad with blueberries.”
One of his signature ways to enjoy it is as a Wild Rice and Steel-Cut Oat Risotto. Rich and creamy, it’s cooked with wild game stock, double smoked bacon, wild mushrooms and herbs, and is best served with a fillet of herb-crusted salmon on top.
Looking for more easy entrée ideas? Shake up meals by adding cooked wild rice to a main, like this Wild Rice Chicken Skillet simmered in mushrooms, spinach, basil, and chili flakes. Or, try a Wild Rice, Artichoke and Kale Salad topped with a protein, like grilled halibut or chicken. You can even add wild rice to pancakes or stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey. But no matter how it’s served, wild rice is sure to be a fall favourite at any table!