The Times West Virginian

November 2, 2011

A little different

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Sometimes you take a favorite dish with you wherever you go.

Kind of like Marion Countians and their pepperoni rolls.

Mary Beth Korf grew up in Minnesota (“You betcha!” she said jokingly), where wild rice “grows like crazy,” she said. So it’s only natural that one of her family’s favorite holiday dishes is wild rice dressing.

She got the recipe from her father-in-law, Sherman Bergstein.

“He always made this for Thanksgiving,” she said.

It’s easy to make, she said.

“It starts off as a basic dressing with onions, celery and a little bit of garlic. Add cooked wild rice and white wine, and let it settle. Put in broth and let that settle. Then butter. What’s wild rice without butter? And toss in some apples and nuts at the very end.

“What makes wild rice expensive is the way it’s harvested. The plant hangs over the water. They go out in canoes and they beat it into the canoe and clean it and things like that.

“It’s a little harder to find here. Everything is a rice mix here.”

If you’re looking to eliminate your gluten intake, this is the dish for you, she said.

“And it’s something different. I don’t think it’s as heavy as traditional stuffings because it’s not the big loaf of carbohydrates. Wild rice isn’t really a rice. It’s a grain with a nutty flavor.”

She usually makes it as a dressing, separately and outside the bird. But sometimes she’ll make it as a stuffing, basting it with the savory drippings or with her own homemade chicken broth.

“It tastes so much better in the bird,” she said. “I prefer the stuffing. It’s all that juice.”

She knows about the controversy about bacteria and in-the-bird stuffing. But she remembers pulling carrots out of her grandmother’s garden, brushing the dirt off onto the grass and munching happily away.

“That’s how she ate them and she lived to be 88.

“I sometimes think they go over the top,” she said of food safety precautions. “I don’t think bacteria and viruses are necessarily bad for you. They build up immunity. I’m not a big proponent of sanitizing my hands. Soap and water are my favorite friends.”

She grew up the youngest of five and the only girl. Was she pampered and spoiled?

“Not really. I got picked on a lot,” she said, laughing. “I was more of a tomboy than a frou-frou girl.”

She played with dolls but often found herself out on the roof, rescuing little Dolly from where her brothers had pitched the toy.

Her mom, Lauretta Korf, was a working, single mom in the 1960s, when most mothers stayed at home. She taught at a parochial school but dinner was always on the table by 5:30 p.m.

“She did try a lot of new things when she had the time, but she didn’t have a lot of time to cook. One of her favorite cookbooks was ‘1,001 Uses for Hamburger.’ She didn’t get the highest pay. We all went to parochial school, so there was tuition to pay, too. But we never went hungry. Plus she had five kids ... four of them growing boys!”

So Mary Beth Korf learned to cook on her own, relying on volumes of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines and cookbooks.

“When I find a recipe I like, I doctor it up a little bit, make it to my taste. But I like to go to the older recipes,” she said. “I’m not a completely from-scratch cook, but I try to be as close as I can.”

Although it’s just her son and herself at home, she likes to spend evenings in the kitchen, making stock and other foods.

“This rice dressing can be made ahead of time,” she said. “It’s as exact to my father-in-law’s as I could get it.”

You don’t have to book a flight to Minnesota to get the rice.

“Any kind of wild rice will do,” she said. “And any kind of apples. I don’t buy specific ingredients for my dishes. I just go to my refrigerator and it’s a little bit of this and that.”

If you’re pressured for time on Thanksgiving Day (and who isn’t?), make the dressing the night before.

“The rice takes about an hour to cook, so it’s nice to get that done with,” she said. “If you do make it ahead, just stick it back in your warm oven or sautée it again to warm it up.”

Like almost anything Thanksgiving, the dish is great as a leftover, she said.

Toss some leftover turkey, add some veggies, top it with some cheese, and you’ve got a holiday casserole.

The dressing would be equally great in stuffed mushrooms, her signature dish. She’s also known for her pumpkin bread.

“My kids don’t think it’s fall until I start making pumpkin bread,” she said. She hasn’t used canned pumpkin since the 1970s, she said, preferring to bake pie pumpkins and freeze the purée.

“Fresh pumpkin makes a world of difference,” she said. “Canned pumpkin just doesn’t take like pumpkin.”

She’s been in West Virginia since 1999 and still hasn’t gotten used to icy roads.

“I’d rather have snow than rain, but the ice! That’s what gets to me. In Minnesota, it’s flat so if you go off the road, the ditch is maybe three feet. But here, it’s a ravine!”

But she’s here to stay, she said. Her business is here. While her daughter Lauren lives in Frederick, Md., her son Julian lives at home while finishing up college.

Her home is here.

Her son was always with her in the kitchen, she said.

“I credit that with his being excellent in math. I stayed at home with the kids then. I gave him flour and he’d measure. He figured out that two quarters of a cup equal a half cup. His kindergarten teacher drew me aside and said, ‘Do you know he knows fractions?’

“He learned that from just playing in the kitchen.”

The contest for November is stuffings and dressings. To be featured on the “My Favorite Recipe” page, contact Debbie Wilson at 304-367-2549 or dwilson@timeswv.com.

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.