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TRY WILD RICE CASSEROLE AS MAIN DISH OR ON SIDE

Serve it as the main event, a pretty salad of cauliflower and broccoli as its supplement. Or make it the side dish to a grilled lamb chop or a halibut steak.

Wild Rice Casserole, packed with vegetables and crunch, comes off as versatile as it does healthy and delicious. Wild rice, you probably know, isn't actually rice at all.It's the grain of an aquatic grass native to the northern Great Lakes region. And it has a strong nutty flavor and a very chewy texture. It can be so strong and chewy, in fact, that I made this recipe two ways - first with 1 cup of wild rice - as it was originally given to me by my friend and cooking pal - and then with half wild rice and half brown rice.

Both worked beautifully, although we decided the version with only wild rice works better as a side dish.

The combination of brown and wild rice is what you'll want to do for a main course. It's quite an easy dish. The rice is cooked and then stirred together with olives, tomatoes, mushrooms, chopped onion, Cheddar cheese and a bit of olive oil. And it's baked for an hour.

Consider variations: Roasted red pepper instead of tomato, rosemary instead of thyme, zucchini or yellow squash along with the onions and mushrooms. Wild rice needs to be cleaned thoroughly before cooking.

This is the method suggested by Barron's "Food Lover's Companion": Put it in a medium bowl and fill it with cold water. Give it a couple of stirs and let sit for a few minutes. Any debris will rise to the top and can be poured off.

The Broccoli and Cauliflower Salad - very simply, a vinaigrette poured over the cooked vegetables and chilled - is a nice match with the casserole.

The vegetables actually absorb the flavors of the dressing better if you pour it over them while they're still hot, although the broccoli will lose its bright green color that way, too. So if you prefer the color, wait for the vegetables to cool. (This is great with asparagus, too.)

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RECIPES

WILD RICE CASSEROLE

1/2 cup wild rice

1/2 cup brown rice

3/4 cup sliced ripe olives

1 cup chopped canned tomatoes

1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

3/4 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon fresh thyme (optional)

1/2 to 1 cup hot water, reserved from cooking rice

1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese

Combine the rices and rinse them well. Place them in a heavy saucepan with 31/2 cups water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and cover, and cook 25 to 30 minutes. (Rice will not be quite tender.) Drain, reserving the liquid. Rice can be cooked a day in advance.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 2-quart casserole with nonstick cooking spray. In the casserole, combine rice, olives, tomatoes, mushrooms, onion, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme. Stir well. Add enough water to moisten well. Stir in three-quarters of the cheese, and then sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. Bake for 1 hour. Serves 6 as a side dish, 4 as a main course.

BROCCOLI AND CAULIFLOWER SALAD

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 cups small cauliflower florets (from 1 small head)

3 cups small broccoli florets (from 3 medium stalks)

Whisk together lemon juice, garlic and olive oil.

Season with salt and a few grinds of pepper. Reserve.

In salted boiling water, cook cauliflower for 4 minutes, until crisp-tender. Remove with a slotted spoon. Then cook broccoli for 4 minutes, until crisp-tender. Drain and combine with cauliflower.

Pour vinaigrette over the vegetables and toss. Let cool and refrigerator for 2 hours, or up to 2 days. Toss. Serves 4.

- Source: "Salads," Leonard Schwartz, HarperPerennial, 1992.