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Cooking for the Holidays

by Elaine Corn

The beginning cook must know by now that once you start cooking, it's hard to stop, especially when the holidays come around. This is when beginners have extra time -- usually in the form of a day off from work or a long weekend -- to plan the cooking, go shopping and work off some of the nervousness that generally precedes cooking for others.

Once you calm down and read through some of the recipes typical for this season, you'll see that they're not all that difficult when taken one at a time. A turkey goes in the oven and will cook even if you ignore it. Side dishes can also hide in the oven and cook for a long time. A favorite at the holiday table -- so easy to make it's embarrassing -- is wild rice.

Wild rice is perfect for new cooks. First of all, it's expensive, so your guests will be awed that you thought of them so highly. By the time you're done, you'll be able to inform everyone that it's not a rice at all but an aquatic grass. Practice saying Zizania aquatica.

Second of all, it tastes great and goes well with so many of the holidays' memorable flavors, namely anything smoky -- poultry or game birds. It also combines well with naturally sweet foods, such as dried fruit -- prunes, apricots and raisins. Because of its nuttiness, wild rice goes nicely with almonds, pecans, pistachios, cashews or walnuts.

When you put it all together, you get a recipe that starts out on top of the stove, then goes into the oven for nearly two hours while you busy yourself with panic and the other psychological disorders that herald having guests.

Buy the longest, blackest wild rice you can find. It will probably come from California or Minnesota.

Astonishing fact: Depending on use, one pound of wild rice will yield up to 20 to 30 servings!

Maple-Orange Wild Rice
Serves 12

Maple syrup and orange juice combine for the background flavors in this rich, creamy side dish. Also contributing some natural sweetness are winter's dried fruits -- golden raisins and chopped prunes. This dish goes together quickly and bakes unattended and worry-free for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

1 or 2 tablespoons soft butter
1 cup chopped prunes
1 cup golden raisins
grated zest of one orange
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 cup wild rice
3 tablespoons additional butter
3 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Extra goodies: 1 cup deluxe pecan halves
(or pistachios, or walnuts, or slivered almonds)

Do this first:
Set oven to 325 degrees F., with a rack on the lowest notch.
Generously smear soft butter all over the bottom and sides of a six-cup (1 1/2-quart) casserole.
Chop the prunes, measure and place them in a bowl. Measure the raisins and add to the prunes. Grate the colored part off the orange on the finest holes of a grater, and add to the prunes, or take off the zest with a zester.
Measure the orange juice and maple syrup, and place near the bowl of prunes.

Do this second:
Measure the wild rice into a colander or large strainer.
Hold the strainer under cold running water and wash the rice until the water runs clear.

Do this third:
Put the three tablespoons of butter in a medium-sized pot and set on a high flame. When the butter melts, pour in the washed rice. Turn the heat down to medium.
Saute five minutes. The grains should just show signs of bursting. They'll smell toasty.
Add the chicken stock. Turn the burner back to high, and bring to a boil.

Do this fourth:
Take the pot off the burner.
Add all remaining ingredients -- the bowl of dried fruit, the juice and maple syrup, and salt and pepper. Stir it up gently.

Wrapping it up:
Transfer the rice to the buttered casserole. Cover well.
Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Make sure the liquid is completely absorbed and the rice has become chewy (not crunchy!) and creamy. If not, return to the oven for 1/4-hour intervals until the desired consistency is reached.

If you have leftovers, freeze them stuffed into a heavy zip-style plastic bag. You can thaw it on the defrost setting of your microwave.

Elaine Corn is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and cooking teacher as well as the author of two books, Now You're Cooking for Company and Now You're Cooking

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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