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Out in Monmouth, farmers take a chance and grow wild

Weekend!Food: In Season
by: COURTESY OF OREGON WILD RICE, In their first experiment with wild rice, Barb and Fritz Foulke last month harvested 3,000 pounds from paddies that flood in the winter, a required growing condition for the crop.

Perhaps it's the fact that wild rice grows in water, much the same as aquatic varieties of long- and short-grain rice, that the nutty grain is referred to as rice.

But the truth is, wild rice, like quinoa or barley, is a different species of grain altogether - a long-grain marsh grass that has played an essential part in North America's food heritage.

For hundreds of years the edible wild rice Zizania palustris has been an important food for many Native Americans, particularly those from the Northeastern seaboard and the Great Lakes region.

Wild rice grows in many lakes, swamps, rivers and creeks in Canada, North America and Mexico, and it is the only indigenous grain of North America. Traditionally, naturally occurring wild rice was hand-harvested from canoes over the course of about two weeks toward the end of summer.

In the past 40 years, commercial cultivation of wild rice has taken precedence across the country and wild rice is now, more often than not, mechanically harvested and available in markets nationwide. Many states, including Oregon, now cultivate this nutty, flavorful grain.

Nut growers give it a try

Barb and Fritz Foulke, hazelnut farmers in Monmouth and producers of Oregon Wild Rice, had never given much thought to the crop:

'A hazelnut friend, Doc Bylund, approached me at a growers' meeting, and I knew immediately that I liked the idea, but that I would need help,' Barb Foulke says.

'Another good friend of ours, Doug McKee, happens to be a successful grass seed farmer, and still another great neighbor, Bill Millhouser, happens to have a natural lowland area that floods every winter. So we all got together and decided to give this new crop, wild rice, a try.'

This August, Oregon Wild Rice harvested its first 3,000 pounds of wild rice from paddies flooded in the winter by the Luckiamute River. Plans are in the works for doubling cultivation next year.

Foulke adds, 'In Oregon, rice farming is growing more popular as many farmers have realized that the ideal growing conditions are found in locations like ours in the Willamette Valley, which floods every winter.'

Wild rice isn't the easiest plant to grow. It requires fresh water that is between 6 inches and 3 feet deep. It can't survive in stagnant water because that won't provide enough nutrients, but it also can't survive in turbulent water because the seedlings will become dislodged. Basically, it needs slow moving, constantly circulating water and a soft and sludgy base from which to grow.

Tender and chewy is the goal

Cooking wild rice also requires a bit more time and attention than most varieties of white or brown rice. In general, you use a 4-to-1 ratio of water to rice for the long grains and usually a 2-to-1 ratio for the smaller pieces broken during processing.

Wild rice should be simmered lightly to avoid damaging the most flavorful part, the outer bran.

According to Foulke, 'You'll know it's done when most of the kernels are split open to reveal white inside and only a few of the kernels have butterflied or opened all the way and peeled back. It should be tender but still a bit chewy.'

Some consider river wild rice to be far superior to lake wild rice, and some find that cultivated wild rice can't compete with naturally occurring wild rice. But wherever wild rice grows, most varieties are deliciously smoky and nutty.

Processing has the most impact on the flavor of wild rice. The bran, the dark outer layer, is the most pungent part. If the wild rice is lighter in color, with much of the bran broken off during processing, it will be considerably less flavorful.

Late August and early September is considered Manoominike-giizis, the wild rice moon, by the Ojibwa Native Americans from the Great Lakes area. It is the traditional time for harvesting and processing wild rice. Although Oregon Wild Rice already wrapped up this year's harvesting and processing in August, the wild rice moon can still be honored in your own kitchen by preparing the grain.