By Joe Dizney
There’s no telling where a “successful” recipe is going to come from — or for that matter, what constitutes “success.”
This week’s was prompted by a search for an interesting stuffing for a whole roast salmon I was requested to cook for a friend’s party. I don’t remember where the original recipe came from but the ultimate concoction was a mixture of wild rice, blackberries and a garlicky-ginger dressing — which sounded as questionable to me then as it does now, but on reflection made sense to me as a ravenously curious cook.
A confession: I have a continuing interest in native American foodways and the wild rice, berries and even ginger certainly fit the menu of ingredients available to the indigenous peoples of North America. Likewise, salmon and other fish of that family (char, trout) are widely dispersed in the northern waters of both coasts and some inland rivers and lakes.
Despite my initial reaction, it made sense and moving beyond my knee-jerk reservations, the resulting feast proved memorable. The literal takeaway for everyone present was the stuffing, of which there was much left over and which provided — sans salmon — cold lunch and dinner salads for many, for days to come. And, as recipes do, over the years that little leftover enjoyment evolved into stand-alone side dish.
First, a stay in New Hampshire during a record low-bush blueberry harvest suggested the premier substitution. The blueberry, like its cousin the cranberry, provides a citrusy kick, which is rarely remarked on. (And this time of year, commercial blues are plentiful, recently available for $2 a pint in the supermarket.)
Somewhere along the way roasted beets got added, and again they seemed a pretty obvious addition both in flavor — providing a savory sweetness in contrast to the blueberries’ tartness — and in offering a beautiful jewel-like ruby color to the visual mix.
Then there was a stay on Martha’s Vineyard (reading Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, if memory serves), which prompted the addition of chopped, toasted hazelnuts. (I warned you — there’s no telling where this stuff comes from…)
Through all these permutations, the wild rice provides a perfectly accommodating medium. And in addition to its almost Paleolithic provenance, wild rice also happens to be yet another so-called superfood, highly nutritious, second only to oats in protein (take that, quinoa!), among its many other benefits. Actually a wild grass and not directly related to brown or white rice, wild rice, in comparison, provides almost twice the protein and fiber of brown rice and slightly fewer carbohydrates, which makes enjoying this ostensible “delicacy” a guilt-free pleasure.
With some minor tweaks to the vinaigrette along the way (a recent addition of just a smidgen of maple syrup to further reinforce the native American tone), there you have it.
To backtrack a bit, as presented here, you could certainly stuff a whole boned salmon and roast it to an impressive and very elegant effect, but experience has shown me it’s a much more flexible and equally remarkable side dish to accompany whatever grilled or roasted meat or seafood you have in mind or on hand, pairing well with poultry (particularly duck!), pork or scallops, salmon or tuna.
And if for some reason your household is afflicted by heathens averse to the pleasures of beets — which for some reason seems to be the food phobia most commonly remarked on in regards to this recipe — by all means, omit them. Make this thing your very own — that’s how cooking is supposed to work.
Blueberry, Beet and Wild Rice Salad
Serves 8 to 10 as a side
1 cup wild rice (or wild and whole-grain rice blend)
1½ cups blueberries
3-4 medium beets, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted & coarsely chopped
4-5 scallions; white bottoms and green tops chopped
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated or minced fine
¼ cup flat leaf parsley basil or mint, chopped
For the vinaigrette:
2-3 shallots, peeled and minced fine
1 clove garlic, minced fine
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Oil for dressing (¼ cup; olive oil will do, but better, use walnut or hazelnut oil)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1) Cook the rice: Prepare rice as per package directions. (I suggest you use a little less water than suggested for a drier preparation.) Cool and reserve.
2) Roast the beets: Toss cubed beets in 1-2 tablespoons of oil, lightly salt and pepper and roast on a parchment-lined baking sheet (in one layer) at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Let cool and reserve.
3) Prepare the vinaigrette: Combine and briefly whisk garlic, shallots, vinegar, syrup and mustard; add salt and pepper to taste; let macerate for at least a half hour. Whisk in 5-7 tablespoons of oil to emulsify. Adjust seasoning.
4) Assemble the salad: Combine cooled rice, ginger, shallots, green onions and parsley or herbs; fold in vinaigrette. Add in the beets, blueberries and hazelnuts and toss lightly. Drizzle in more oil if dry and adjust seasoning. Serve cool or at room temperature.