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Celebrating wild rice: The caviar of all grains

Stock up on wild rice and discover the different strains found in northern Minnesota's rivers and lakes at "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" Wild Rice Festival Saturday, Oct. 22 at Armory Square. (File photo)

Nothing is more Minnesotan than wild rice and hotdish.

Local chefs are challenged to combine the two for prizes—and glory—on Saturday, Oct. 22.

A wild rice hotdish contest will be part of Park Rapids' first-ever celebration of the official state grain.

The Nemeth Art Center, in partnership with the White Earth Nation, Park Rapids Downtown Business Association and Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, is organizing the "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" Wild Rice Festival.

Food, music, art and presentations are slated for 10 a.m. to midnight Oct. 22 at Armory Square. The hot dish competition will run from noon to 2 p.m.

Award-winning, professional chef and author Amy Thielen will serve as judge.

Winner of the Judge's Award receives a cash prize, while the People's Choice Award recipient earns a gift basket.

Other tasty ingredients may be used in the casserole, but all entries must contain wild rice. Entries will be scored based on taste and texture. In the case of a tie, appearance will be evaluated.

"Wild rice has more protein, a lot more flavor and an important North American backstory: let's start eating more wild rice," Thielen said.

First, buy the right stuff, she advises.

"Real wild rice isn't black; it comes in shades of brown and brunette: golden brown to copper brown, grayish ash to light childhood blond—but it's never shiny ebony black, the color that most people associate with wild rice. That's not real rice: that's paddy rice. It's not gathered via canoes and parched over wood, as wild rice should be, but instead planted in rows and cultivated like a farm crop," Thielen said.

Wild rice, or "manoomin" as the Anishinaabe call it, is the only grain native to North America.

The low-calorie, antioxidant-rich grain isn't rice at all; it's actually a semi-aquatic grass that grows in freshwater lakes, rivers and creeks in about two to four feet of water. It has been a staple for Native American people for 400 years.

Minnesota has more acres of natural wild rice (Zizania palustris) than any other state in the nation, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The grain has been historically documented in 45 of the state's 87 counties.

Wild rice has a higher protein content than most cereal grains, making it nutritious for both wildlife and humans.

Most notably, "rice from different bodies of water looks and tastes different because each one grows its own variety," Thielen said. "Some rice is long and elegant like basmati, some is short and full like coffee beans."

Festival attendees will have the opportunity to stock up on authentic wild rice, learn how it's harvested and processed, plus discover the "terroir"—French for "taste of its place," explains Thielen—of different strains of local wild rice.

Hotdish competitors are responsible for bringing their own equipment and supplies needed for holding, displaying and distributing samples. Plasticware, sample cups and napkins will be provided.

The entry fee is $10. Register at the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce by Oct. 20.