For as long as I can remember, I have been serving millet to dinner guests, in secret. I fold it into mouthwatering desserts and delicate puddings. I pack it into vegetarian burgers and layer it into casseroles. I reveal my secret ingredient only when plates are empty. Why be so secretive about millet? Because whenever I mention the grain, I hear the same line: "But isn't that bird food?"
This year, my secret ingredient can finally be proudly served: The United Nations has named 2023 the Year of Millets to highlight the long-overlooked staple and its crucial role in food security.
Humans have been eating millet, a nutritious whole grain with small round seeds, for millennia. Long strands of noodles made with millet were found in China, dating back about 4,000 years - no small feat because the gluten-free grain can make for a fragile dough. To this day, across Africa, India and northern China, an array of different types of millet is grown and eaten. Before the arrival of corn and potatoes from the Americas in the 16th century, grains were also central to diets throughout Europe, including Italy and Germany.
Millets are climate-resilient: They are drought-tolerant, can adapt to climate shocks and thrive in poor soil. The staple has among the lowest water needs of any grain crop, essential to farmers in a world with a rapidly changing climate.
Millets are considered nutrient-dense
In the past decade, the grain has started to emerge from obscurity, thanks to our interest in all things gluten-free. Millets are considered nutrient-dense, with variations in their nutritional profile, depending on the species: Proso millet, for example, typically sold in the United States, is an excellent source of manganese and copper. It is also a good source of fibre, as well as vitamins and minerals such as folate, niacin, magnesium and vitamin B6, among others. Eating more millet is not only good for the planet, but also good for you.
But good intentions and good nutrition will only take you so far at the table. Unless your breakfast or dinner dish sings, chances are you won't go back for seconds. Which is why I came up with my stealth serving technique in the first place.
Millet is immensely versatile
As a culinary staple, millet has a lot going for it: Its flavour is mild and it can be on the table in about 20 minutes, depending on freshness, making it as quick as white rice. Unlike slightly toothsome quinoa, the grain cooks up pleasingly supple, which might be appealing to children. And millet is immensely versatile, taking on any aroma you throw at it, both savoury and sweet. One of my favourite comfort foods is fluffy, steamed, lightly salted millet with a nice slab of butter melted right into the centre. A fragrant olive oil is equally divine.
Millet gives you lots of mileage throughout a busy workweek. Just as with beans, you can cook a large pot over the weekend and refrigerate it for up to a week. Use leftover millet, like couscous or bulgur, as a base for salad, to add body to soup or as a foundation in a casserole.
Millet flour makes delectable cookies and other baked goods
Another trait of millet: The staple has an almost comedic inflatable quality - the more water, broth or other liquids you add to your saucepan, the more it absorbs. It becomes soft and mellow, making it an easy swap for cornmeal in polenta or the rice in creamy puddings. When ground, millet flour makes delectable cookies and other baked goods for your gluten-free guests. In short, millet is a multi-talent.
The recipe for a warm millet bowl I share below is ideal for chilly fall and winter months. The grains are infused with cardamom and an optional pinch of saffron, transforming their colour from light yellow to a profound gold. I cook the millet first in water to plump it up a little, followed by milk (or plant-based milk), and simmer until it is creamy like rice pudding. I top off my bowl with seasonal fruit and a handful of pistachios to add crunch and floral flavour.
Is mighty millet on its way to becoming the new quinoa? As a lifelong fan, I sure hope so. It has been only a decade since the United Nations catapulted colourful quinoa into our home and restaurant kitchens. In this spirit, I lift my fork to golden millet and wish it the same stratospheric success.
Warm Millet With Cardamom and Pistachios
4 servings (makes scant 4 cups)
Golden millet is infused with the warm scent of cardamom and a hint of saffron for a comforting fall breakfast with a stunning hue. Once the gluten-free grain is cooked, you have many options for a nourishing start to the day: Dollop each bowl with Greek yoghurt, ricotta or vegan alternatives, then top with halved grapes, chopped pears, bananas and/or toasted pistachios.
Fresh raspberries or blueberries make a great pairing during warmer months. Leftovers warm up well, and the aroma only intensifies.
Where to buy: Millet can be found in the gluten-free section of well-stocked supermarkets; bulk sections of health food stores; or online.
Storage: Refrigerate in a sealed container for up to 3 days; the grains will firm up. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, with additional milk, as needed.
Substitutions: Prefer plant-based milk? Replace the milk with unsweetened oat, almond or other plant-based milk. And if you want something more indulgent, use half-and-half instead.
No saffron? Skip it, or add
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric.
Active time: 20 mins; Total time: 40 mins
From cookbook author Maria Speck. For the millet
Ingredients: For the millet
1/4 teaspoon loosely packed saffron threads, optional (see substitutions)
1 tablespoon hot water
3/4 cups water
1 cup millet
6 whole green cardamom pods, lightly crushed in a mortar or with the blade of a knife
1 strip lemon zest, about 2 inches long and 1/2-inch wide
1/2cups whole or reduced-fat milk, plus more as needed
1 to 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar, to taste
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or coconut oil
For the toppings
1 cup plain Greek yoghurt (full- or low-fat), ricotta or vegan alternatives
1 cup halved grapes, chopped pears or banana
2 tablespoons lightly toasted chopped pistachios or almonds
Make the millet: Lightly crush the saffron threads with your fingers into a small bowl. Cover with the hot water and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed 2- to 3-quart saucepan, combine the water with the millet, cardamom and zest. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed 15 to 20 minutes. At this point, the grain can still be a little toothsome.
Uncover and stir in the milk, saffron water, 1 tablespoon of sugar and salt. Return to a brisk simmer, cover so the lid is slightly ajar and cook, stirring frequently, until the grains reach the consistency of a creamy porridge, about 5 minutes. (Cooking times can vary based on the freshness of your millet and personal preference. For a softer grain and creamier consistency, add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup more milk and cook a few minutes longer.
When done, taste, and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar, if desired, then remove from the heat. Stir in the butter or coconut oil, and discard the cardamom pods and zest.
To serve: Divide the porridge among bowls. Top each serving with some Greek yoghurt, ricotta or vegan alternative, followed by the fruit of your choice. Garnish each bowl with pistachios or almonds, and serve warm.
Nutrition | (1 cup porridge): 313 calories, 47g carbohydrates, 23mg cholesterol, 10g fat, 6g fibre, 9g protein, 5g saturated fat, 195mg sodium, 8g sugar