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Regional recipes for rice pots, pilafs and casseroles abound throughout the world. The wild rice casserole is a baked specialty of the Great Lakes region of the United States and adjoining provinces of Canada. The people of the area commonly call its basic preparation, simply, a “hot dish.” Recipes vary, usually including a meat or protein, and a vegetable, often canned or preserved. The starch ingredient can vary also, but wild rice is unique to the region.
Wild rice is entirely different from the processed white grains available throughout the world commonly referred as Asian rice. Although both are grasses that grow in shallow water, the former is of the botanical genus called Zizania, and the latter more familiar rice are species of Oryza. Wild rice is sometimes controversially called Indian rice, as it was a sacred annual grain staple of North America’s first people.
Canada and the Great Lakes area still cultivates wild rice commercially, as does a few other places in the world, including the western US, and the countries of Australia and Hungary. It is widely distributed around the world, but it is a relatively exotic culinary delicacy. Wild rice can be instantly identified by its long, thin shape and its mostly dark black, whole grain husk. The starchy kernels take a long time to cook and split open their husks, so they are well suited for baking in a controlled oven.
The strong taste of wild rice is nutty, slightly reminiscent of burnt earth. Correspondingly, it pairs well with equally strong flavors. Among the meats sometimes mixed into a wild rice casserole dish are wild game such as duck, pheasant and venison. Mushrooms and dark green vegetables such as green beans canned from an earlier harvest are popular additions to a wild rice casserole also. To incorporate together all the many possible ingredients, one of the most common liquids used is a prepared can of condensed cream soup.
The mixed ingredients are poured into a deep baking dish, and cooked in an oven until a sprinkling of bread crumbs or cheese on top turns crusty and golden brown. To better control cooking, a wild rice casserole is often prepared by first fully cooking its individual ingredients separately. A brief bake in the oven finishes this hearty and nutritious hot dish. Wild rice is low in fat, high in protein and vitamins, and gluten-free for those with sensitive digestion.
People in America’s Great Lakes region tend to regard their baked casserole creations quite seriously. Homemade wild rice casseroles are proudly served at potluck picnics and many other other large gatherings. Annual baked dish contests are common events in many communities, often attracting dozens of entries.