Millet is an ancient seed, originally cultivated in the dry climates of Africa and northern China since the Neolithic Era. (A few years ago, archaeologists discovered a 4000-year old bowl of millet noodles in northwestern China!) In time, millet spread throughout the world; the Romans and Gauls made porridge from it, and in the Middle Ages millet was more widely eaten than wheat. It is mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient for bread.
Today, millet continues to be a staple for a third of the world's population. Ground millet is used in flatbreads, such as Indian roti and Ethiopian and Eritrean injera (made from teff, a variety of millet). In Eastern Africa, millet is used to make beer. It is also an ingredient in Eastern European fermented drinks and porridges.
In America and Western Europe, millet has mostly been relegated to bird and livestock feed. However, interest in the grain has been growing, especially in gluten-free diets. It's nutritious – providing fiber, iron, B vitamins, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium – and highly alkaline, making it easily digestible and soothing to the stomach.
There are many varieties of millet; the primary types are called pearl, foxtail, proso, and finger. Yellow proso is the kind most often found pre-packaged or in bulk bins at health food stores. (Do buy millet intended for human consumption, as the millet sold for pet food still has the undigestible outer hull.)
Millet is so versatile, it can be used in main dishes and desserts. It has a delicate nutty flavor and, depending on how it is cooked, a texture that can be crunchy or soft. We think the flavor complements winter squashes particularly well, making it a perfect grain for this time of year.
• To cook basic millet: Rinse and drain millet. In a medium saucepan, bring 2 1/2 cups water and 1 cup millet to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit uncovered for 20 minutes. Toss with butter or olive oil and season to taste with salt, pepper, or herbs. Makes about 3 cups.
• For a softer texture similar to mashed potatoes, increase water to 3 1/2 cups and simmer, covered, until water is absorbed, about 45 minutes to an hour.
• For a nuttier flavor, toast the millet before cooking. Toast it in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 3 minutes.
• Leftover millet can be tossed into salads, stir-fried with tofu and vegetables, shaped into croquettes, or simmered with milk, honey, and cinnamon for breakfast.
• Mark Bittman's Autumn Millet Bake (pictured above)
• Lemon-Saffron Millet Pilaf
• Grilled Millet and Butternut Squash Cakes
• Millet Pie with Spinach and Feta
• Creamy Millet Porridge (using leftovers!)
• Metropolitan Bakery Millet Muffins
• Not-for-the-Birds Millet Cookies