Seasonal Pantry: Use millet in tabbouleh and other salads

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A couple of weeks ago, I was serving tabbouleh to guests in the Artisan Tasting Lounge at the Gravenstein Apple Fair. I chose tabbouleh as a contrast to many of the rich foods that were being offered in the lounge and, overall, it was a big hit. There were, of course, the inevitable questions about whether or not it was gluten free and a few assumptions that it was, of course, because no one serves anything with gluten in it anymore.

Sigh.

Bulgur wheat is the basic building block of tabbouleh but as I sat there, answering questions and handing out tastes, I thought about what might make a good substitute. Some people made the assumption that the grain was actually quinoa, not bulgur wheat, but I ruled it out as not a good option, especially in this type of dish.

Millet would be better, I finally concluded, and have been experimenting with the grain ever since.

Millet is a very small grain produced by a fast-growing grass. Its ancestral roots are in Northern Africa, where it is used in a variety of traditional cuisines. It is enjoyed as a porridge in Ghana and Nigeria and is also made into balls that are served with sugar and milk. Wedding guests in Nigeria take a mouthful of millet cooked with sorrel and hold it in their mouths without swallowing while they dance.

In America, it is most common as a breakfast cereal, in breads and cookies, and as food for birds.

Millet contains no gluten. It has nearly as much protein as quinoa and more than buckwheat and oats. A half-cup serving of cooked millet contains about 120 calories, 4 grams of protein, and substantial amounts of folacin, magnesium, phosphorus and thiamin.

Because, like many grains, it lacks lysine, its nutrients are more easily available to us when it is paired with beans and other legumes.

I found organic millet at Andy’s in Sebastopol for $1.89 a pound, which goes a long way. Look for it at your favorite local market, in the bulk foods section, where you should find the best price and best options. If you don’t find it there, check the shelves with other grains and you should find at least one brand.

If you have favorite ways to enjoy millet, please feel free to share them with me at the email address listed at the end of this column.

As I have experimented with millet, I’ve read about a dozen different recipes on how to prepare it. Several recipes say to cook millet in salted water for 20 minutes, which I find is insufficient. At 20 minutes, it is still crunchy and watery, like “wet bird seed,” a friend with a long history working in the world of food, commented.

A couple of recipes say it should be soaked in water overnight, though I found this makes virtually no difference in either cooking time or final taste.

A few recipes say it must be toasted in a dry pan before adding water, something else I could not verify by trying the technique myself, though this was the most promising of all suggestions, and it doesn’t hurt.

I compare it to toasting Israeli couscous in a dry pan for a few minutes before adding liquid. Once you have cooked millet, you can enjoy it in a variety of ways; for some of my favorites, consult the suggestions that follow the main recipe.

Basic Millet

Makes about 2½ cups, serves 3 to 4

½ cup millet

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1½ cups boiling water

Set a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and when the pan is hot, add the millet. Stir gently, preferably with a metal spatula, for 2 to 3 minutes.

Reduce the heat to low, add the boiling water, cover, and cook gently for 35 minutes, without lifting the lid. Turn off the heat and let rest, again without lifting the lid, for 10 to 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and enjoy in sweet or savory dishes; suggestions follow.

Savory Suggestions

Use in place of couscous, with tagines and other Moroccan dishes that call for couscous alongside.

Use in place of bulgur wheat in tabbouleh and similar salads.

Top with freshly chopped tomatoes and minced basil, Italian parsley, or chives for a quick delicious and nutritious meal.

Use as a bed for braised vegetables, meats and stews.

Use in place of pasta with marinara sauce, with or without meatballs.

Stir ½ cup freshly made pesto into the millet and divide among individual pasta plates. Top each portion with a spoonful of pesto.

Stir ¼ cup fresh lemon juice into the cooked millet, along with 1 minced serrano chile, some crumbled Mexican oregano, and a bit more salt. Add some grated cheese if you like. Spoon into individual bowls and top with salsa verde or another favorite salsa or hot sauce.

Sweet Suggestions

Stir chopped dried fruit and lightly toasted nuts into the millet after it is cooked and drizzle with your favorite sweetener.

Top the cooked millet with roasted strawberries (stem and slice a pint strawberries, add 3 tablespoons of sugar, let rest for at least two hours, and roast in a 375 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Top with seasonal fresh fruit and heavy cream or creme fraiche. If you like, stir a tablespoon or so of your favorite sweetener (sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup) into the cooked millet first.

Stir fruit juice (a bit of fresh orange juice or apple juice) into the cooked millet, along with about a tablespoon of freshly grated ginger, a pinch of cinnamon, and a pinch of cardamom. Top with ½ to ¾ cup coconut milk and lightly toasted macadamia nuts. Add sliced fresh mango and enjoy.

Some grains can reach a creamy consistency simply by simmering them in enough liquid, but millet seems to require frequent stirring, even more than polenta does. It behaves a bit like the Italian rices used in risotto; the process of stirring facilities creaminess. Once you have creamy millet, you can enjoy it as you would polenta, grits, and rice porridge (i.e., congee and jook). Add cheese, herbs, butter or olive oil and top with Bolognese, ragu, shrimp in Creole sauce, poached eggs, roasted salmon, or whatever other combination of foods you enjoy with other grains.

Basic Creamy Millet

Makes 2 to 3 servings

½ cup millet

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3½ cups hot water, plus more as needed

Set a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the millet and salt, and stir in the hot water. Stir for a minute or two, until the water boils rapidly. Reduce the heat so that the water simmers.

Stir the millet for a minute or two every 5 to 10 minutes, until the millet forms a fairly loose porridge, about 40 minutes. After 25 minutes, you may need to add more water; it will depend on the width of the saucepan and how high the heat actually is.

When the grains are fully tender, remove from the heat.

Enjoy right away. Refer to the headnote for serving suggestions.

Variation: To enjoy millet as you would rice congee, replace 1 or 2 cups of water with an equal amount of chicken stock or meat stock, preferably homemade.

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