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Talk walk on the wild side with versatile wild rice

With cold weather, appetites tend to turn to dishes of substance. Any list of the more satisfying starches that are the basis of such dishes must give wild rice prominent position.

The first fact usually mentioned about wild rice in almost any context is that it isn't rice at all; it's a grass. Even though I mentioned it first, too, that is probably the least useful thing to know about it because few people who aren't botanists could make very much of the distinction.In fact, however, my trusty dictionary defines rice as an aquatic cereal grass, so even if wild rice is a grass, rice is, too.

What's more interesting (by far) about wild rice is the nutty flavor and crunchiness it adds to the belly-warming quality it shares with that other grass.

The flip side of that coin is that wild rice costs quite a bit more than regular rice, and it takes much longer to cook.

Cooking time usually is 45 minutes or more in simmering water, but it varies a lot, so you need to be around checking on it from time to time to keep it from overcooking.

For estimating servings or when a recipe calls for an amount of cooked wild rice, it is worth knowing that wild rice swells more in cooking than that other grass. A cup of raw white rice yields 3 cups of cooked rice; a cup of raw wild rice yields more like 4 cups cooked. (A pound of wild rice is 2 3/4 to 3 cups of raw rice, so it yields 11 or 12 cups.)

This wild rice soup recipe is an amalgam of many. The basic instructions for cooking wild rice are included.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service

WILD RICE SOUP

1 cup raw wild rice (to yield 4 cups cooked)

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 medium onion, chopped

8 ounces mushrooms, sliced thickly

1/2 cup flour

2 (10 1/2-ounce) cans condensed chicken broth

1 soup can water

1 1/2 cups diced cooked chicken or turkey, optional

2 tablespoons sherry, optional

1 cup half-and-half (fat-free if desired)

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Hot pepper sauce to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and drain the rice. Put it in a saucepan with 5 cups of water, bring it to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer the rice, covered, about 45 minutes, until most of it has "popped." Drain well.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onions and saute them over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they become translucent. Add the mushrooms and saute, stir-ring occasionally, until they yield their liquid and it's almost all cooked off.

Add the flour, stir it into the onions and mushrooms and cook, stirring, about 1 minute to heat the flour. Little by little at first, stir in the broth, making sure each addition of liquid is absorbed before more is added. Add the water, the rice, the chicken and sherry, if desired, and heat through. Add the half-and-half, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper and heat through. Serves 8 or more.