Wild Rice, the Caviar of Grains
When we think of Thanksgiving side dishes, we tend to think of potatoes: maybe russets mashed with butter and salt, or yams with brown sugar and marshmallows. But wild rice is about as American as it gets and much better for you. According to the USA Rice Federation, “With 15 grams of protein, wild rice contains almost twice as much protein as white or brown rice — with little difference in the calorie content.” Wild rice also has very little fat, but plenty of dietary fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. And it’s yummy! In fact, its sweet, nutty taste has earned it the nickname “the Caviar of Grains.”
A Rice That’s Not
Wow your guests with this tidbit: Wild rice isn’t really rice at all, botanically speaking. It’s actually the seed of a tall, flowering water grass.
Grown in North American river and lake areas, black wild rice is the only “rice” indigenous to North America. For Native Americans in those regions, it was a main source of nutrition — so important, in fact, that the Chippewa and Ojibwa tribes call it manoomin, a term derived from “manitou,” meaning Great Spirit, and “meenum,” meaning delicacy. It has been a human staple for 10,000 years, and Native Americans still harvest it every year as they have for eons, going out on canoes and knocking the ripe seeds off the stalks with their paddles. The harvest falls into the boat, and the wild rice that escapes into the water becomes the seed for next year’s crop.
An Ecological Treasure
The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission notes that wild rice makes a huge ecological contribution. Muskrats feed on its soft spring shoots; invertebrates live on its dying straw in the fall, and in between, its wetlands habitat provides a home for species ranging from moths to moose to snails. Wild rice also helps maintain water quality and prevent erosion by binding loose soils, tying up nutrients, and slowing winds across shallow wetlands. The Commission calls it “an ecological treasure.”
So as you dig into delicious Wild Rice Gratin with Red Kuri Squash, Cranberries, and Hazelnuts at Thanksgiving dinner, you’re not only continuing a proud American tradition, but also eating something that’s good for the planet and your body — that’s truly something to be thankful for.
Wild Rice Gratin with Red Kuri Squash, Cranberries, and Hazelnuts
Forget the mashed potatoes this year: this gratin’s complex interplay of flavors and textures makes it really shine — you get crispy, chewy, soft, savory, tangy, and sweet in every bite. Hazelnuts and Gruyère cheese enhance wild rice’s natural nuttiness, which is in turn complemented by the mellow chestnut flavor of Red Kuri squash. Tart, plump cranberries offset the squash’s sweetness, and its soft creaminess is cut by the crunchy panko topping. Cooking the rice in chicken stock and butternut squash soup instead of water adds additional autumn richness — any leftovers won’t last long.
Best of all, you can roast the pumpkin, reconstitute the cranberries, and cook the rice the day before: just bring them all to room temperature before you finish the recipe. Red Kuri (also called Baby Red Hubbard or Orange Hokkaido) is widely available, but if you can’t find it or you’re in a hurry, buy packaged butternut squash cubes, toss ‘em with some olive oil, and roast as you would the pumpkin. And if you’re pot-lucking it, this dish travels well. Just reheat the gratin at about 200 degrees; it’s just as good warm as piping hot.
- 1 (2-pound) Red Kuri squash, halved crosswise and seeded
- 1/3 cup Dried Cranberries
- 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Wild Rice
- 1 cup Creamy Butternut Squash Soup, such as Pacific Natural Foods
- 2 cups Chicken Stock*
- 3-1/2 Tbsp Olive Oil, divided, plus more for oiling the baking dish
- 1 Tbsp chopped Shallot
- 2 cloves Garlic, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped dry-roasted Hazelnuts
- 3/4 cup shredded Gruyère Cheese
- 1/4 cup All-Purpose Flour
- 1 tsp dried Thyme
- Generous pinch of dried Sage
- 1/4 tsp freshly grated Nutmeg
- Salt and Pepper
- 1/4 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Place the two squash halves cut side down in a large baking dish and pour 1/4 inch of water in the dish. Cook the squash until a knife easily slides through the center, about 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer the squash to a plate, and let cool.
Put the cranberries in a small bowl and add hot water to cover. Let the berries plump for at least 20 minutes, then drain the water and set them aside.
Meanwhile, put the rice in a sieve and rinse it briefly with cold water. Drain and add it to a large lidded saucepan along with the butternut squash soup and chicken stock. Over medium-high heat, uncovered, bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat down so the liquid is at a strong simmer. Cover loosely and cook for 45 to 55 minutes, until the rice is tender and has plumped, and much of the liquid has been absorbed. (The rice will have doubled in size, and there will be some liquid left.) Remove the pan from the heat. Stir the rice, cover the pan tightly, and let it sit for 5 minutes, then drain the rice in a sieve and set it aside.
When the squash is cool enough to handle, peel it with a sharp knife and discard the skin. Cut the squash into small cubes (about 1/2 inch; you should end up with about 4 cups), put the cubes in a large bowl, and set aside.
In a small skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the shallot and sauté for about 30 seconds. Add the garlic and sauté until it softens and starts to brown, about 1 minute, then add the hazelnuts and sauté until the nuts are coated in the oil and the ingredients are combined, about another minute.
Add the hazelnut mixture, cranberries, rice, Gruyère, and flour to the squash cubes and mix well. Add the thyme, sage, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste, and stir again. Put the mixture in the prepared gratin dish and spread the panko evenly over the top. Drizzle the remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil over the gratin and bake until the panko is golden brown, about 30 minutes. (If, after about 25 minutes, your panko is stubbornly refusing to brown, take the dish out, move the oven rack to the top position, turn the broiler on, and return the dish to the oven for about a minute, watching carefully so the gratin doesn’t burn.) Let the gratin cool for about 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
*Make this vegetarian by substituting vegetable stock.
Diane Sepanski is a freelance writer and editor of such cookbooks as Pike Place Market Recipes; Grow, Cook, Eat; and IACP award-nominated Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast. Her blog, Pen & Pan, is a place where editors, chefs, writers, and foodies can come together in delicious, dedicated discussion.