Seasonal Pantry: Use millet in tabbouleh and other salads
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.
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.