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Pop Wild Rice and Eat Stinging Nettles Without Getting Burned

The Wild Food Summit on the White Earth Ojibwe reservation was held in the world’s biggest classroom, the outdoors. (RELATED: Learning to Wildcraft: Foraging and Feasting on the White Earth Reservation)

In addition to attending more traditional lecture-style presentation, students at the weekend-long Summit participated in gathering and preparing wild food alongside presenters and experts. This immersive, experiential learning and teaching style is typical of how Ojibwe traditionally pass along information about their environment and culture, according to Bill Paulson, White Earth Ojibwe and presenter at the Summit.

“It’s one thing to listen to someone talk about a plant but quite another to go out and identify, harvest and eat that plant,” observes Steve Dahlberg, director of the White Earth Tribal and Community College USDA Extension Service Office. He and his staff have organized the Summit since its beginnings eight years ago.

The Summit is held each June at a primitive campground, Little Elbow Lake, on the White Earth Reservation.

“Learning isn’t useful to me if it’s only about packing trivia into a notebook. I want the information to make an impact on students lives,” said Dahlberg who is also a science instructor at the White Earth Tribal and Community College.

When teaching his ethnobotany class at the college, for example, Dahlberg hopes that students will incorporate wild plants into their daily lives.

The Wild Food Summit is modeled on this philosophy and also imparts a message of care, respect and honor for the plants and the land, say Paulson and Dahlberg.

Each day of the Summit began with prayers of thanksgiving offered by Paulson and elder Kathleen Westcott, both White Earth tribal members. One morning, a non-Native participant asked to conduct Christian prayers for the group but was politely rebuffed. Paulson and Westcott explained to the group that the Ojibwe tradition of giving thanks was not tied to religion.

“Giving thanks is engrained in who we are as Ojibwe people. Since this is Ojibwe land, its important that people understand our ways,” Paulson told the group.

For Lavonne Schildst of Alexandria, Minnesota, the Summit was a priceless opportunity to experience first hand the traditional Ojibwe approach to life. “They never forced their ways on us. We were gently reminded to honor and respect the land,” she said.

This was the first time that Schildst and several other participants had ever visited a reservation. She was surprised by how open people were with their culture. Mike Larson of the Twin Cities area was also a first time visitor. “I thought it would be more like a powwow,” he observed.

He was impressed by the diversity of attendees as well as how well everybody got along.

“We create a community during this event; each person is drawn to the work that calls to them and everything just sort of gets done at the camp,” Paulson observed.

Building community, giving thanks and hands on learning are the foundations of creating a connection to and sense of stewardship towards the land, according to Dahlberg.

“If I present people with a doom and gloom message about why we should change the way we treat the land, people shut down,” says Dahlberg.

Once people build a relationship with the land through activities, such as learning about wild foods, they begin to care about the environment, Dahlberg explains. “In teaching, I prefer to move towards the good and away from the bad.”

The Wild Food Summit, which is supported by the White Earth tribe and the College exemplifies the school’s mission of weaving Ojibwe culture and traditions into its academics and its community outreach programs. “Ultimately the College is for everybody in the community, regardless of ethnicity,” Dahlberg observes.

For White Earth Tribal and Community College student Terry Kemper, participating in the Summit helps him both academically and spiritually. Learning about healing properties of plants that have been used traditionally by Ojibwe people has helped Kemper connect with his culture. This connection, he says, has also helped in his recovery from substance abuse.

An alumnus of Dahlberg’s ethnobotany class, Kemper says, “Steve let me do ceremony as part of my studies but he still held me accountable for the work.”

An ex-convict, Kemper is pursuing a degree in Indian Studies at White Earth Tribal and Community College and frequently takes his message of recovery to prisoners.

For attendees already interested in wild foraging and wild foods, the Summit offered insight into the Ojibwe relationship with the environment. (RELATED: True Wild Rice Isn't What You Think It Is—It's Better, Winona LaDuke: Think Globally, Grow (and Eat) Locally, and Climate Change Threatens the Ojibwe's Wild Rice Harvest)

“Learning more about wild edibles was great, but the human message of connecting with the plants and world around us, that had the greatest power,” Larson says.

Here are a few recipes and descriptions of some of the foods that Summit-goers prepared:

Popped Wild Rice (Manomin)

I’ve tasted many examples of popped wild rice. Unfortunately, none of them have tasted very good. Now I know why.

According to Bill Paulson, White Earth Ojibwe, if wild rice doesn’t pop within a few seconds, it isn’t’ going to pop, it will only burn. I now realize that all the popped wild rice I have tried has been burned.

Paulson, a presenter at the Summit and director of facilities at the White Earth Tribal and Community College says that rice from Nett Lake in Minnesota seems to be the best popping rice but that any wild rice will work as long as it is not over parched or too dry. Larger kernels seem to work best, he notes.

Directions for popping:

Heat about 2 inches of high temperature oil, such as peanut or grape seed oil, in a deep cast iron fry pan to 400 degrees.

Place about 1.4 cups of dry uncooked rice in a small sieve or tea strainer and submerge the rice in the hot oil. Rice should pop within seconds. Quickly remove the rice to a bowl and continue popping rice until you have enough for a treat. Add a little maple syrup and eat! The rice kernels pop up to about the size of a maggot, notes Paulson.

“This was made as a seasonal treat. I think that people stumbled upon it by accident while parching rice,” Paulson observed.

“It’s not something that you make a lot of and store; it’s best to make it and eat it right away,’ he suggests.

Burdocks a.k.a. "Stickers"

Burdock (Arctium) is considered a weed in North America but is used as a blood purifier in Asia where it is also eaten as a vegetable. This common plant has large leaves and a woody stalk and is known by its distinctive burrs-like fruits that attach to pant legs and imbed themselves in animal hair.

Laura Reeves, a botanist from Gardenton, Manitoba demonstrated how to cut and peel away the fibrous outer layer of burdock stalk to expose its tender inner celery like flesh. These can then be chopped and added to a stir-fry. They have a delicate flavor and reminded me of asparagus. According to Reeves, the root can also be eaten and tastes like lotus root. She suggested harvesting and eating burdock stems earlier in the growing season before they get too tall and woody.

See pictures of how to peel burdock stems.

Stinging Nettles (urtica dioica) are higher in iron than spinach and high in calcium and other minerals according to Reeves. The plant also has medicinal uses as a diuretic and treatment for painful muscles and joints. To avoid the distinctive sting, she suggests wearing gloves when harvesting the plants early in the growing season. Cooks at the Summit, however, didn’t wear gloves as they removed the nettles leaves from the stems, suggesting that a quick sure tear was the best method to separate the leaves without getting “stung.” See photos:

Think of the nettle leaves like spinach when gathering and cooking since they reduce in size considerably once cooked. The leaves must be cooked in order take away the sting and can be substituted for spinach in many dishes. Summit cooks used the nettle leaves as a thickener in a delicious chicken soup. Reeves suggested making stinging nettle pesto. According to, Italians make nettle pesto, “pesto d’urtica,”

3 cups raw stinging nettles

3 medium garlic cloves

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Parmesan cheese, finely grated

1. Using tongs or gloves, measure 3 tightly packed cups of raw young nettle tops. Add them to salted boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes, drain immediately and then place the greens in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Cool, strain and squeeze dry using a tea towel to remove every drop of moisture that you can.

2. Coarsely chop the nettles to make about 1 cup. Add them to the bowl of a food processor with the garlic cloves and pine nuts. While pulsing, slowly add the olive oil, 1 tablespoon at a time. Season to taste with salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese. You might add a small knob of soft butter and a squeeze of lemon juice if it needs brightening. Blend once more to incorporate the final additions.

Makes 1 generous cup

Wild Hazelnut Milk

Sam Thayer, nationally known wild food instructor and researcher, and author of The Foragers Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, prepared milk from wild hazelnuts. The hazelnut is a perennial shrub from the birch family and grows from three to ten feet high in open areas of the forest on sandy soil. Thayer suggests that after harvesting, the nuts should be dried on a tarp in the attic or dry place for about 3 days before shelling. Wild hazelnuts are small, about 1.2 the size of cultivated hazelnuts and surrounded by a tough shell, so shelling them can be a slow process. Thayer, however, had a handy device called a “Dave Built,” nutcracker that made the process much faster. After the shells are cracked and separated from the nutmeats, the meats can be ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle and slowly mixed with water. Thayer, however, uses a Vitamix blender, which takes about 15-20 seconds to produce a smooth paste, slowly adding water to desired consistency. He suggests cooking the milk in order to reduce the nuts gas producing effects. Thayer slowly boiled the milk until it began to foam. The resulting foam can be scooped off and used as a spread on bread or fruit. He emphasized that preparing hazelnut milk is a process rather than a recipe. He added maple syrup to the warm milk and served cups of the delicious drink all around. He explained that the milk can be refrigerated after cooling but warned that it doesn’t have a very long shelf life and should be used within a day or so. According to Thayer, wild hazelnuts are about 20 percent protein and 40 percent oil.

Summit participants also ate lambs quarters, a wild leafy green (chenopodium album), served raw in salads, cattail roots served pickled, basswood leaves as wraps for cheese, wild venison and lots of wild rice manomin.

“Wild rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner?!” asked Mike Larson. “It doesn’t get much better as far as I’m concerned.”

“There was so much to learn at the Summit! I am looking forward to experimenting with wild food gathering and preparation,” noted Lavonne Schildst. She also enjoyed learning the Ojibwe cultural approach to gathering wild foods and caring for the land. “In the classic white approach to nature, you go in and take what you want, but at the Summit they showed us how to be respectful and grateful for the gifts of the earth.”


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