by Kate Heyhoe
Native American foods aren't just appropriate for the Thanksgiving table, many of the staples are also gluten-free—like corn, amaranth and wild rice from North America, and quinoa from South America.
Some people are sensitive to gluten, a type of protein most commonly found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale. When guests are coming (and you don't know their dietary restrictions), it's nice to know that terrific salads, side dishes, and stuffings can all be made with delicious grains that just happen to be gluten-free.
Wild rice, in particular, has an intensity that holds its own in a holiday menu of competing flavors. And it's versatile: it can be the basis of a salad, stuffing, dessert, or soup, or cooked and mixed into other recipes.
Wild rice is not really a true rice; it's an aquatic grass that thrives in the rivers and lakes of Canada and the United States around the Great Lakes region. The Native Americans were the first to harvest wild rice, and today, they harvest it in much the same way as was done hundreds of years ago. One person, in a canoe or low boat, travels through the marshy rice beds by pushing a long, forked pole along the bottom. Another person bends the long stalks over the side of the boat, then beats them with two juniper sticks (called "knockers"), shaking the kernels loose so they fall into the boat.
Manitok Wild Rice describes the process:
"In the early fall, the Chippewa families would move to the wild rice fields to set up camp and work. For the next several weeks, the men would pole the canoes through the fields, while the women brushed the grains into the canoe with two sticks called "knockers." After the rice was brought to shore, it was laid out to dry, then parched over an open fire. The outer husk was removed by walking on it in a skin-lined pit, then, in the final stage of preparation, the rice was winnowed to remove the chaff. A celebration took place after the first harvest to give thanks to the Manitok (gods). During this ritual, some of the first harvest of rice was cooked and eaten. Then, returning to the village, the prepared rice was stored in mancocks (birchbark containers) until ready to be eaten."
Outside of the Great Lakes region, this nutty-flavored grain with a chewy texture is now grown commercially in other areas, including California. But the true wild rice harvested today and in the past by Native Americans is considered to be more flavorful than the commercially grown varieties. It can also vary in color, size and taste from lake to lake, adding depth and dimension to a dish.
Ideas for Wild Rice: To add flavor, toss the wild rice with butter, olive oil, herbs, or spices. Make a salad by tossing cooked wild rice with marinated artichoke hearts, mushrooms, green onions, tomatoes, olive oil and vinegar. Stir cooked wild rice into soups, stews, and stuffings. Make Rice Pudding using wild rice instead of white rice. Eat wild rice for breakfast as you would hot oatmeal, with milk and sugar or syrup. Blend wild rice with white or brown rice to add a nutty flavor and texture.
Other gluten-free grains from North and South America include corn, amaranth and quinoa.
Corn (also known as maize) comes in a whole family of products suitable for gluten-free diets. Polenta, grits, hominy, masa, and cornmeal, to name a few. But be careful: Many recipes using cornmeal, such as cornbread, call for wheat flour as well, so be sure to check the ingredient list.
Quinoa (pronouned KEEN-wah) is a super-nutritious grain first cultivated eight thousand years ago at elevations over 10,000 feet, by the Incas in the Andes Mountains, who called it "the mother grain." (At around the same time, farmers were just beginning to plant wheat in the Near East and rice in the Far East.) The quinoa plant has an amazing ability to withstand drought and frost, tolerates poor, rocky soil, and grows in places where no other vegetation can. It is now also cultivated in North America. As rich in protein as milk, quinoa has the highest nutritional profile of all grains, containing B vitamins, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, and vitamin E. More importantly, quinoa, unlike other grains, is considered a complete protein because it contains all eight essential amino acids. The small, bead-like grains are also quite flavorful, with a nutty taste and a pleasant texture. Be sure to rinse quinoa well before cooking, as it has another survival trait: a coating called saponin, which acts as a natural pesticide, but can taste bitter. Removing saponin is easy: Just rub the grains in a bowl of water, then rinse and drain in a colander. Quinoa may be steamed or boiled until tender and translucent, and served as you would rice or couscous. It is also ground into flour for use in baked goods and pastas.
Amaranth is similar to quinoa in appearance, but the grains are tinier. The Aztecs of Mexico domesticated this plant more than five thousand years ago, and at one time it was as common in their diet as corn. It grows wild on most continents, and the United Nations encourages its cultivation because of its nutritional profile. The pinhead-sized grains contain more protein and calcium than milk, and unusually high levels of the amino acid lysine. Amaranth cooks down quickly, making it suitable for soups, and a few spoonfuls added to bread dough, beans, rice, and other grains enhance their nutritional value. Amaranth is also ground into flour, and the leaves (ranging from green to magenta in color) are often cooked as a vegetable, like its relatives the spinach and chard plants.
I've listed below a sampler of wild rice recipes, starting with the basics and carrying through to dessert. Of course, you don't have to whip up wild rice, corn, quinoa or amaranth just because they're gluten-free grains. Their flavors, textures, and nutritional profiles are reason enough to enjoy them all the time, with or without a holiday or guests.
Copyright © 2011, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page modified November 2011
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