Known to many only for its role in bird feed and pig fodder, millet is a gluten-free grain with some amazing health benefits. Notably, it’s rich in iron, hostile to candida and highly alkalizing (a boon in these over-acidified times). According to Ayurveda, millet counteracts cold and congested conditions by heating and drying the body. Then again, Chinese medicine puts it down as a cooling grain, though surely one with potential for a mid-winter meal.
Unfortunately, most of the time millet’s pretty camel-yellow beads wind up pasty, mushy or gluey when cooked. While some insist on defending this “creamy” texture, I find it insipid and incompatible with millet’s metalllic-tinged, slightly bitter flavor profile. In fact, what this grain needs most is fluffiness, nutty and sweet toasted notes and a tooth-engaging chew. Luckily there’s a pretty easy way to make it so.
The secret is to combine loads of pre-rinsing with some heating action before the actual cooking takes place. The best way, which I first discovered in The Splendid Grain by American natural foods expert Rebecca Wood, involves toasting, then rinsing, then cooking the grains using the absorption method in a covered pot. Another, related, solution is to use several changes of boiling water to give the millet the thorough rinsing it requires. (Obviously when the water is scalding hot, you can’t use your fingers to rub the grains gently together and rid them of their chalky dust; use a wooden spoon.)
To toast the grains lightly in an oven, try 5-10 minutes at 170°C, staying as vigilant as when toasting easy-to-burn nuts and seeds. Or use a skillet over moderate heat, stirring, tossing or shaking constantly. It’s important to keep the grains from burning or turning dark before cooking. Three minutes in a cast-iron skillet usually does the trick. If you burn a batch—save it for the birds and start over. Next, it’s crucial to rinse the toasted grains thoroughly in several changes of cold water. Get in there, use your hands; you want the rinse water to run clear. To cook, cover the strained grains with double their volume of boiling water, add a fat dash of salt and a spoonful of butter or ghee, cover tightly and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat, but let stand, covered, for at least 10 more minutes. Uncover, fluff, season to taste with plenty more salty butter and serve.
This is how we make one of the basic morning meals at our house, usually tossing in a few quartered dried figs and five or six green cardamom pods with the millet. We then add additional ghee, toasted nuts and honey or maple syrup at the table. Nutmeg and cinnamon make another great flavor combination, alongside a smattering of raisins. Or try chopped dried apricots (orange or brown) and pitted dates nestled in with a vanilla bean. For us, millet has become an archetypal breakfast dish, so we don’t experiment with swapping in olive oil and sweated onion for the butter and fruit, or stock for the boiling water. But that’s the way to go if it’s dinner you’re after.
As you can see, making millet edible is not only possible, but quite easy. Though I should probably mention that sometimes it also requires a lot of maple syrup, and maybe also the undivided attention of one who is willing to play Mikado ad infinitum.