FOOD / On the shelf: Wild rice

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The Independent Culture
FOR A brief season every fashionable restaurant in London seemed to be wild about wild rice. It blew in from the United States and blew out again. Maybe you were persuaded to buy a small packet (anything but a small one would be very expensive) and it's still there in your cupboard. So, continuing our series of ingredients that got left on the shelf, we turn to wild rice.

It is not a quick option, taking 40 to 45 minutes to cook. In fact it is not technically rice at all, but the seeds of an aquatic grass, closer to wheat.

It is native to North America and has been harvested for centuries by American Indians in canoes, working the rivers and lakes. The stalks of each plant are bent over and threshed individually into the bottom of the boat. To de-husk the grains they dry them over wood fires, then put them in a hole covered by a deerskin and stamp on them. Well, that's what you get if the label says it's organic wild rice.

Then, in the 1960s, Uncle Ben (the big rice company) created man-made paddy fields to service this profitable niche market.

But what to do with it? One British restaurant where you still find it on the menu is Clarke's in Notting Hill Gate, Sally Clarke having trained in California where it is much used. She cooks it first, then combines it with cooked white rice to add crunch, nutty flavour and colour contrast. She uses a tiny hillock of the black grains as the central feature in a salad of sweet, pink cubes of cooked beetroot, sweet- sour slices of blood orange, and peppery watercress, a contrast of flavours heightened with a dressing of balsamic vinegar, mustard and extra virgin olive oil.

The American writer Lesley Allin deals with wild rice in Great American Food (Rosendale Press pounds 14.95). This is my version of one of her dishes.

MUSHROOM AND WILD RICE CASSEROLE

Serves 4

6oz /170g wild rice

12oz /340g mushrooms, sliced

1 medium onion, finely sliced

2oz /50g butter

pinch of thyme

sprig of basil

salt and pepper

Rinse the rice and put it in a heavy saucepan with the stock and herbs, cover tightly and bring to the boil. Simmer over a low heat for about 45 minutes.

On the stove, gently fry the onions for 5 minutes till soft but not coloured, then stir in the sliced mushrooms and cook until they change colour.

Combine the mushrooms, onion and rice (which should have absorbed most of the stock) in an oiled, 3-pint casserole and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bake in a moderate oven (350F/180C, gas mark 4) for 15- 20 minutes.

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