July 2, 2010

Minnesota Wild Rice Hotdish and a Happy Fourth of July!

Warning: a SUPER-LONG post ahead. Read it at your own risk.

Since late last week, I’ve been all geared up for the Fourth of July! In fact, during my stay in the States, my favorite holiday was and still is the Fourth of July. It’s all about family, friends, fun and merriness. It’s all about summer. It’s THE only time of the year to get out, get real and have fun – with short pants, T-shirt and flip-flops on! So long, winter coats!

Looking back, I realized I actually celebrated the Independence Day differently each year. Instead of getting stuck at one place, I found myself partying away in different parts of the country. OK, I’ve got to admit it wasn’t as glamorous as the “Hollywood style.” But, I enjoyed every bit of it.

July 04, 2007

It was my first six months in an alien culture back then – in a friendly Minnesotan town called Bemidji (Buh-Mee-Jee). I told myself, “Heck, you’ve gotta get very well acquainted with the folks here – it’s gonna be your home for another 2 years!” Since I was taking summer courses during that long 3-month break, I diligently stayed in town.

Just with what most Americans would do during the summer – we grilled, we ate, we chilled out with family and friends. We also managed to do something a little unconventional: picking juneberries on the Fourth of July of that scorching-hot summer that very year. And, it was pretty dry too!

Juneberries are aptly named so as their season normally falls in June. The ripe ones are dark purplish in color whereas the unripe ones are red (sort of). Fairly common in northern Minnesota. I was surprised to even learn that Americans from other parts of the country, especially the South, haven’t heard about this fruit. The berries are small and taste SWEET! No tartness whatsoever! Whenever my family friends manage to pick enough of these, which is rare as the fruit doesn’t come by a lot, they’d make juneberry pie, preserve and even juneberry sauce to serve with biscuits or vanilla ice cream. Yummy!

Minnesota is nicknamed “the Land of 10,000 Lakes,” which is both true and false as there’re actually more than 10,000 of them out there! You’d probably be hit by the sight of lake(s) almost everywhere you go – as long as it’s within Minnesota. Several of us youngsters decided to go on a boat ride to enjoy the sun out there after lunch. We had plenty to choose from. In the end, we invaded Big Bass Lake.

The annual Fourth-of-July parade – the small-town America way! I love this very shot the most. Somehow, it gives me the feel of that Pioneer spirit I once read about … as though I'm traveling back in time to the Westward Movement. I know, these folks here are supposed to be lumberjacks. Oh, well …

Here comes the famous Paul and Babe, from the widespread lumberjack legend, especially in parts of America where the lumber industry once played (and may still be playing) a crucial role in the economy.

July 04, 2008

After convincing me for an entire week, my American best friend Becky drove me home with her, to Prior Lake, MN, which is a suburb of the Twin Cities. (Thank you so much for the invitation, Becky! Haha! I know I was stubborn.)

Becky (in the middle) and her family

Part of the Minneapolis skyline, by the Great Mississippi. If I ain’t mistaken, the old site of General Mills is on the left side in the shot below ... (My memory can be faulty. Correct me if that’s the case.)

Once the world’s largest shopping mall, the Mall of America. It’s in Bloomington, a suburb of the Twin Cities, MN.

Like I said, Minnesota has gobs of lakes. The name of Becky’s hometown is aptly named after a lake called Prior Lake, which is just outside her backyard, literally! Here in Minnesota, it’s very common for the average families to own boats or pontoons. These babies are put to good use during the short-lived Minnesota summer.

Gettin’ red, blue and white! Gettin’ ready for the Fourth of July!

On the Fourth of July, many Minnesotans ravel in the festivities by, on and in the water. At Becky’s hometown, the boats and pontoons are all parked at Candy Cove, which is part of Prior Lake where water is calmer and thus, safer. People will then just stay there to hang out for half the day!

I was under the sun for close to 5 hours, and I forgot about applying sunscreen on my shoulders! Bummer! My shoulders got sunburned, big-time. *Sob* In the end, I had to live with a prickly sensation and great pain for one whole week!

Anyway, this was the party I talked about. It's just crazy! The view is amazing! Never in my life had I seen this kind of party till then …

Sorry for the obscurity in this shot. I took this while we were waiting for firework display – on the lake! Apparently, the pontoon jolted and so, my hands shook too. From the scene below, you can imagine how many boats and pontoons there are … Again, SIMPLY AMAZING! It’s like we are having traffic congestion on the lake. Haha!

Finally, firework display!

Minnesota is also known for its Scandinavian heritage. I once read in The New York Times that the state has the most Norwegian descendants in the country. A handful of Swedes and Germans, too. Becky’s family is part Norwegian and part Swedish. During my stay there, not only did I get to know Becky’s family, I also got to visit with her relatives who traveled all the way from Norway. Fun! (I only remember two Minnesotan-Norwegian terms: “far-mor(?)” and “uffda!”)

July 04, 2009

I traveled eastward to the state of Illinois to join a huge family reunion with my American family the Fourth of July last year. Nope, my family friends aren’t from Illinois. The three families involved chose to converge there due to geographic reasons I suppose. This is what happens when you’ve got families dispersed all over the U.S. (There was one who flew back from the Netherlands just for this, too!)

As we drove for 12 hours(?), we swung by these places of interest in Wisconsin, which is a state just east of Minnesota. It’s nicknamed “America’s Dairyland.” Now I understand why …

We also stopped by the Little House Wayside in Pepin, WI. It’s the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the great American writer from the turn of the 20th century.

The reunion organizers decided to rent a campground. To be honest, that was sort of my first time camping out. Haha!

The infinitely vast corn field of northern Illinois. Simply breathtaking …

Tornado aftermath: near the campground, from years back …

Last but not least, there, I met some of the greatest people I could ever get to know of. Though it was my first time joining the event, they welcomed and treated me with great hospitality, which made me feel right at home. I enjoyed the company and had fabulous time getting to know more people. Unforgettable moments!

An indoor Fourth-of-July parade, brought to you by these lovely moms and kids. It was supposed to be held outdoors. Oh, well! Thanks to the rain!

Now, though I’m miles away from America, I’ll still participate in virtual Fourth-of-July festivities – just like what I did for last year’s Thanksgiving. So, I decided to whip up something special. Nope, it wasn't dessert.

It’s American, it’s Minnesotan – and it’s hotdish.

Hotdish is a potluck staple and comfort food in Minnesota and the neighboring states of the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin. According to the Free Dictionary by Farlex, “Minnesota and the Dakotas have a lot of Scandinavian heritage; hotdish may be a calque of the Norwegian ‘varmrett,’ which is a compound word that translates literally to ‘warm dish’” (n.d.).

Before baking

Beyond the upper Midwest, hotdish is often known as “casserole.” As an outsider, I interpret hotdish as a concoction of filling and yet affordable ingredients that have been partially cooked and then baked together. With loads of carbs. (For non-Minnesotans, you’ll get what I mean once you’ve looked at the recipe below.)

After baking

Why carbs-laden? Why filling and yet affordable at the same time? My imagination tells me because it’s FREEZING up there. (Winter goes as long as 6 or 7 months in Minnesota. The worst I’d had was close to -35°C!) And back in the olden days, making hotdish was a perfect way to cook and eat without going broke. So, ingredients such as rice, meat, heavy cream, milk, potatoes and corn will find their way into the hotdish. Cream of mushrooms seems to be ubiquitous in the world of hotdish.

My confession is that I never cooked hotdish when I was in Minnesota. I didn’t even bother about it as I knew for sure there’d be at least one hotdish present at almost every potluck I went for. *Grinning* Well, it’d been a while since I had hotdish, I thought, “Why not?”

This hotdish is what I’d call Minnesotan-Minnesotan. Why? Because of the use of wild rice. Wild rice is the state grain of Minnesota.

There’s this small bag of wild rice with me. I sent it to my mom via a friend who went to Malaysia for a visit in November 2007. Fast forward. In 2010, I asked her, “The rice is still here!?” She answered, “I don’t know what this is and what to do with this!” Surprisingly, the rice is still good. No "invaders" whatsoever – even in the hot and humid Malaysia!

Wild rice is indirectly related to Asian rice. And, it doesn’t come cheap. It’s got a nutty scent to it. When it’s soaked, to me, it smells like tea leaves. When it’s cooked, to me, it smells both tea-like and intensely nutty. When I was steaming wild rice last Sunday, the kitchen smelled like a teahouse. Haha!

Cooked wild rice has a rather chewy texture to it, which I love.

Just search on the Internet. You’ll be swarmed and spoiled by the recipes out there! Unlike mac and cheese or peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, hotdish isn’t defined by a fixed set of ingredients. You can tweak the recipes as you like. However, do not leave out cream of mushrooms and/or cream-of-whatever-you-like; otherwise, the ingredients aren't going to bind. It’ll end up as neither Minnesotan nor hotdish.

Minnesota Wild Rice Hotdish
Adapted from VisitBemidji.com

* This recipe yields a lot. I got two regular-sized casseroles out of it, more than enough to last me for a whole week for lunch at work. This is what I call bulk cooking. And, I froze the leftover extra. *

270 g (1.5 cups) wild rice -- soaked in room-temperature water overnight

946 mL (4 cups) water
1/2 tsp salt

Regular cooking oil -- for browning the meats in
227 g (0.5 lb.) bacon -- cut into pieces
680 g (1.5 lb.) ground beef (Ground pork, chicken or venison works, too)
43 g (3 Tbsp) salted or unsalted butter
* I used regular cooking oil, which is a cheaper alternative, and eyeballed the quantity needed. *
1 small onion, chopped

170 g canned button mushrooms -- sliced
2 cups diced celery
* I used the leaves, too, which added so much flavor. *

Enough regular cooking oil -- for greasing the bakeware with

1 tsp light soy sauce, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Ground nutmeg, to taste
1 can (286 g) cream of chicken soup, undiluted
1 can (286 g) cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
1.5~2 soup cans of milk (Just use the can for the above-mentioned soup)
  1. To cook the wild rice: drain the soaked-and-thus-softened rice, then in medium-large kettle/pot/saucepan, bring [A] to a boil. Once the water has reached a boil, stir in the rice gently to avoid splattering HOT water on yourself! Now, reduce the heat to low to keep the water at a steady simmer; cover the kettle with its lid. Let the rice cook for 45~60 minutes or till the rice gets tender and its kernels pop open.
    Once the rice has gotten tender and its kernels are popped open, uncover the kettle and fluff the rice with a fork. Then, let simmer for 5 minutes, uncovered -- stirring occasionally. After the 5 minutes, turn off the heat and drain off any excess liquid. Set the cooked rice aside for use later.
    Note: Steaming is just one of the many methods of cooking wild rice.
  2. Over moderately high heat, heat up some cooking oil in a large skillet. Once the oil has gotten hot, reduce to medium heat and add in the bacon to cook till it's browned. Dish up the browned bacon and set aside. Repeat the same to the ground beef.
    * I did all these in a large wok. *
  3. Scald the butter in a large skillet till melted and hot. Then, stir in the onion to sauté till it's fragrant and looks somewhat translucent. Now, stir in [B] and cook till tender. Once they're done with cooking, dish them up.
    * Again, I did all these in a large wok. *
  4. Grease the bottom and sides of casserole(s)/roasting pan(s)/baking pan(s) with regular cooking oil; set aside.
  5. Toss the meats, celery, mushroom, wild rice and [C] together real well (as pictured below), then divide evenly and transfer the mixture into the prepared casserole(s). For the two casseroles I used for this dish, each of them was filled to the top. Of course, don't overdo this.
  6. Bake at 180°C~190°C, covered, for the first 30 minutes, then uncovered, for the last 15~30 minutes. When the mixture is cooking up in the oven, it sizzles. Fun to watch actually. The tell-tale sign of when the dish is done is the "crust" that forms atop the wild rice mixture.
  7. Remove the hotdish from the oven. It's at its best when served hot or warm, especially on the freezing windchill nights of Minnesota. What a comfort food!
 All mixed up and ready to be baked (As mentioned above in step #5)

I’m sending my Fourth-of-July post to The Sunday Creative, as my maiden entry in this weekly creative project hosted by Maegan of Life Set to Words.

This week’s creative prompt is “open,” a word that best describes this wonderful place called America. It is a free and open country with unbounded freedom of expression; with some of the most open-minded people I could ever come to know of, who come with great tolerance and openness toward different cultures. There, I was known and respected for who I am not for what I wear. Thanks, guys! I learned tremendously from y’all in the last 3 years of my life too. Hope to revisit my “family” and friends there someday!

Happy Fourth of July! Happy 234th Birthday to the United States of America!


Erica Lea said...

This is one awesome post. Thank you so much for sharing!

Anncoo said...

This is great post, Pei Lin. I get to know a new friend from Minnesota ;)

pigpigscorner said...

Juneberry? Now that's new. Buh-mee-jee sounds like a really fun place, is it always that sunny there?

Kitchen Butterfly said...

What beautiful photos..........absolutely gorgeous! Love the way you describe America s open too

Bonnie Williams said...

Oh, Pei-Lin, thanks for another great post! You have made us hungry for wild rice hotdish and lonesome for all of the great people at the Reunion. I am so glad you were able to go with us and meet the family! Steven appreciated the Father's Day post very much, too! Happy Fourth of July!!!! :)

Quinn said...

Haha, Pei-Lin, your posts, all as usual, they are lengthy (take it as a compliment because I love reading them!) and tells me so much about you. I felt like you're just sitting next to me telling me a story. You write well, that's for sure and I think we could all see your love for Minnesota, everything from the farm to its people expressed through your write-ups.

The wild rice sounds like a risotto in disguise,chewy but what a special rice...did you say nutty and tea-leaves scented? I'm thinking where I can grab a bag here in Australia, might just wanna make rice pudding and see how it goes in desserts.

Hehe, Pei Lin, compared to the last time I saw you, you were just a little slimmer back in the States. I guess we all put on weight when we're pampered in our home country.

Cheers from Down Under!

Honey Bee Sweets said...

Thanks for letting us know so much about how you used to celebrate 4th of July in Minnesota. :) It's always like a mini tour back there whenever I come visit your blog. :) BTW, I have not heard of juneberries before, was it mostly grown in Minnesota only? And look at those cheese at Wisconsin! Dairy good is one of the main things I miss so much over there! BTW I do hope you manage to find time to go get those peanut chips from Reese. Enjoy them and bake something nice for yourself and love ones yah?

Abbi said...

I enjoyed reading your post. We would love to have you here this year too!

wendyywy @ Table for 2 or more..... said...

Finally I see you in the last pic!!!

Hey, you cook these for your lunch in the office???? How to eat when they're cold? Unless maybe you have a microwave in the office. But still, if you ask me to eat the same stuff the whole week, I'd be so sick of it that I'll stay away from that dish for a year.

Jess @ Bakericious said...

Hi Pei Lin, this is a great post and I enjoyed reading it a lot, was like having a tour there too :)

Jo said...

Great photos and looks like everyone had great fun. Most of all you got fun. I agree with Quinn .. whenever did you have a short post .. heh - I'm not complaining.

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

Hello, guys! Thanks for droppin' by! Hope you've had/been having a wonderful weekend! Happy Fourth of July!

@Erica Lea: You bet. Thanks a million for the encouraging words!! Glad that you like it! Enjoy the holiday!

@Anncoo: Thank you so, so much! Haha! Who could that be? I ain't Minnesota. I was only a former Minnesota resident. Haha! =P

@Anne and Jeff: Yea ... Many people from outside of the area don't know of juneberry, which is unsurprising. Nah ... Bemidji is just a small friendly town in north central Minnesota. The life there is SLOW and QUIET, definitely different from Kuala Lumpur.(Man, life back home is CRAZY!) NOPE! Close to two-thirds of the year is WINTER! On average, it's -30C to -15C there. (Not forgetting the windchill.) Summer is so short, only 4 months before fall comes. Sad, huh?

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

Hello, guys! Thanks for droppin' by! Hope you've had/been having a wonderful weekend! Happy Fourth of July!

@Ozoz: Thank you so much for the encouraging words! America is no doubt a beautiful country with bunch of friendly people. Whatever I've mentioned here is by no means political; my thoughts are obviously based on my personal experience as a student there. I'm glad that I don't get misled the media. Americans are not just about Bush-ism or post-Cold War Imperialism! They're more than that! Experiencing things for yourself is always the best textbook to be picked up for you to learn about different people and cultures. =) And, I'm sure you can totally empathize with me on that as an expat in Europe.

Bonnie and Steve: Oh, Mom and Dad! Thank you so much for being so supportive! Haha! I miss y'all so, so much! Miss so much cooking and baking for you guys! Haha! Well, it's summer over there. I guess hotdish isn't really the best option to go with. Grilling that is! Thanks for taking me along to the reunion last year before I flew home. America is such a beautiful place, with very friendly people whom I miss dearly. Take care! I shall get back to your email the soonest I have a moment here. Love lots from Malaysia.

@Quinn: Haha! Alrighty, I'll take it as a compliment though I know I can be long-winded if I want to. Haha! You haven't seen me sitting still or doing somethin' else while being quiet, huh? That's another side of me. Yes, I love Minnesota so much that I can consider the place my second home on Earth. =) Hey, I've yet to try making risotto! Have heard so much about it though. I guess it's the Italian version of rice dish. Requires arborio rice, right? If I ever find the need to buy arborio rice, I'll definitely try fixing risotto and riz au lait. Hmm ..., I dunno if you can find wild rice in Oz because it's a really American thing ... or should I say Minnesotan. Well, California does grow it ... It was only Minnesota I think. The Californian one is pretty commercialized. Well, you still can try though. If you're flying home end of this year, I shall make somethin' wild rice for you to try since I still have quite a bit of the rice left. I'm not sure about wild rice in dessert though. Haha! Oops, you've got it wrong, my dear! I actually put on quite a bit of weight during the latter part of my stay in the States, which explains why I looked plump when we met up in February. Since we last met, I lost 5 kg or so again ... Haha! My body is crazy.

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

Hello, guys! Thanks for droppin' by! Hope you've had/been having a wonderful weekend! Happy Fourth of July!

@Bee Bee: Hey, there! Thanks so much for the encouraging words! You've just made my day. Dunno why, feeling zombified today. Haha! I think juneberries are Minnesotan; however, they can be found in other parts of the uppper Midwest too. That's why juneberry isn't considered "mainstream berry." I miss picking berries for our bakes in the summer! It's definitely a summer ritual there! Wisconsin has got quality dairy products, though we shall not compare those with the ones from Europe, which is another different story. I miss American Cheddar and all other American cheeses!!! They're so damn expensive in KL! *Sob* No ... haven't found a time to see Reese since we both last met. Actually, I've been craving for chewy choc-peanut butter chip cookies!! Just waiting for the time to come! Haha! Hey, I'm definitely coming to SG! Will let y'all SG floggers know when the time comes so that planning can be done early. Not forgetting, I need to apply for annual leave too ... Haha! Keep in touch! See ya till then! Remember I owe you some food ... I'll bake something to bring along. Should be able to get thru the customs, hopefully. Haha!

@Abbi and the Cobbs: Hello! Warm greetings from Malaysia! Thanks so much for being so supportive, too! Miss you guys so much! Miss your four little stars. Hope they're all doing well. Hope they won't forget who Pei-Lin is. Haha! I know they're too young to remember me. Oh, well! How I wish I could join the Fourth of July this year and bring some food along! I just miss doing that! Take care till then! Enjoy the holiday! Love lots from Malaysia!

Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pei-Lin@Dodol and Mochi said...

Hello, guys! Thanks for droppin' by! Hope you've had/been having a wonderful weekend! Happy Fourth of July!

@Wendy: Haha! I know I'm SO long-winded ... Aiya, that was like what, 2 years ago!? I look chubbier now lar ... 青年發福! Hahaha! Belum kahwin pun sudah 發福! Cham lor ... No worries, there's a microwave oven at the workplace. Erm ... I told you lor ... I'm a simple and non-fussy eater. As long as I'm feeding myself well with edible food, I'm not complaining. I can have the same for one whole week: breakfasts, lunch and early dinner. The thing with me though is, the food I eat has to be, most of the time, HOME COOKED/BAKED! No store-bought or dapao's. Don't like take-outs or dining out unless I'm forced to or being belanja! Hiak hiak ... Evil ler ...

@Jess: Arigato!! Wah ... You've made my day just with a few words ler ... VERY appreciate that! I think I've an alternative in my career: I can be a TOUR GUIDE! Haha!

@Jo: Haha! Thanks so much for that! I'll take it as a compliment. =P Hmmm ... I wonder if I can break my own records by writing short -- OR, WORDLESS!? Hahaha Will see ... ;)

Su-yin said...

I loveee wild rice - as you say it adds a nice touch of nuttiness to the dish. :) Great photos, it's nice to get a glimpse into both your American and Malaysian experiences!

noobcook said...

never tried wild rice before. your hot dish looks really delectable with the wild rice and all the good stuff. Love your photography too ^_^

faithy, the baker said...

Miss, you are super long winded can..hahahaha But Awesome post! Great post with so much information to share! I love your photos too! Sounds like you miss US a lot! :D

Shirley @ Kokken69 said...

It is evident from all your posts that you miss your friends and time in the US. I wonder if you often compare life back home with life in the US... Don't worry about being long winded. I tend to be long winded myself. I have to be really careful. The rice looks fascinating. I have recently just bought some Japanese black glutinous rice and can't wait to experiment with them...

Allie said...

Wow Pei Lin...4th of July sounds awesome. I must visit and experience it myself someday.

Thanks for dropping by my blog and for your very sweet and encouraging words :). I love reading your blog and drooling over the food! Oh and do try the Brrrrownies when you get a chance, they are really lovely :).

Bakertan said...

its kind of like reading a short story filled with lots of pictures. Really interesting~ I am sure u had a great time there. =]

Angie's Recipes said...

I can tell how much you miss Minnesota...

Hearty Bakes said...

Hi PeiLin, thanks for dropping by my blog and left your sweet comment.
Great post with all the scenic places and fun people around. two third of the year is winter, how nice!
It's always nice to read from the other side of the globe. Thanks for sharing.

tigerfish said...

What beautiful moments you have....
I wish I could visit Minnesota one day.

Blessed Homemaker said...

I don't have time to read through your detailed posting but I've always enjoyed looking at your pics. And sometimes if you don't "hear" from me, I'm however still lurking around ;-)

Elin said...

Pei Lin...this is a great post and thanks for sharing! You have a great foster family :)

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