Millet is often regarded with disdain. Unfair perhaps, but alas. Such is life.
Should a wheat crop fail, millet can be planted in its place, harvested when the wheat, had it not fallen prey to the whims of Mother Nature, would have matured. A friend to the farmer, for one. It tolerates drought, harsh growing conditions, and, best of all, millet - sweet, light and delicate - feeds one third of the world's poorer peoples. A friend to the earth and its inhabitants, then. Africa, Northern Asia and India all have used millet widely in their food, yet it is perceived, even in those places, as the food of the very poor. Rice, a far more labour- and water-intensive crop, is considered King.
Millet deserves at least a moment of your attention.
To cook millet, consider how you will present your finished dish. At first glance, the tiny grains appear to be a perfect substitute for couscous, but millet isn’t quite that soft, nor that refined. It’s a little rough and ready as you may expect a Poor Man’s food to be but that, you see, is millet’s strength. Millet more often than not will, and should, retain a little of its sweet, nutty crunch. It’s a versatile creature; so versatile in fact that it can, if you add a lot of liquid, set to a creamy, solid mass. By all accounts, that was what the Europeans used as polenta before Columbus went and discovered the Americas.
I’m yet to attempt it, but winter’s far from over.
To cook: Toast the millet in a dry, heavy-based frying pan. Toss constantly over a fairly high heat until you hear tiny popping, just like popcorn, only quieter. Remove from the heat, rinse in a bowl of cool water, drain well and proceed as follows:
For dry, light pilaf-style grains: Cook in a ratio of 1 part grain to 2 parts liquid. Bring to the boil, add a little salt, lower the heat to a gentle simmer and clamp the lid on. Cook for 25 minutes, remove from heat and rest, untouched, for a further 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.
For soft, almost mash-like grains: Cook in a ratio of 1 part grain to 3 parts liquid. Bring to the boil, add a little salt, lower the heat to a gentle simmer and clamp the lid on. Cook for 30 minutes, remove from heat and rest, untouched, for a further 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.
The soup below is an amalgamation of a few, mostly Middle Eastern, ideas. Both Claudia Roden and Arto Der Haroutunian make traditional soups of stock, rice and yoghurt bound with egg. You, of course, may prefer to use rice where I've used millet, but the texture and sweetness work very well. In lieu of stock, I roast carrots, onions and bay until sticky, add water, some deep saltiness, then puree. It means you get a soup base with flavour AND texture, without the need for stock. Dried mint is essential. Fresh mint will not replicate its particular, pleasant muskiness and would make it far less Middle Eastern.
Carrot, yoghurt and millet soup – feeds 4-6
Cook the millet as per the dry, light pilaf-style above. Here, you want the grains to retain a little bite in order to hold their own, suspended by the velvet soup. Gently, gently with the yoghurt. At high heats, even with the addition of flour and egg, yoghurt has a tendency to split. Not the end of the world, but it won't look nearly as good as it could.
½ cup of cooked millet (see above)
4 medium carrots, cut into small chunks
2-3 onions, peeled and cut into chunks
Sea salt and pepper
1-2 tablespoons of tamari or soy sauce
A bay leaf or 2
1 litre (generous quart) of boiling water
Squeeze of lemon
1 ½ cups of thick, plain yoghurt
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons of flour (rice flour works well)
1 tablespoon of dried mint
Extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons of paprika
Chopped parsley, to serve (optional)
Preheat the oven to 220oC (425oF). Cook the millet if you have not already done so (see above).
Toss the carrots, onions and bay into a deep baking dish. Pour over a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and mix, ensuring you coat everything well. Roast in the preheated oven for 1 hour, giving things a lazy turn from time to time. The vegetables should be soft and golden at their edges, catching here and there in the high heat. Remove from the oven, discard the bay and pour over the tamari and boiling water. Scrape at those caught bits – they have too much flavour to ignore – stirring until they dissolve, then puree the mixture in batches. Pour into a wide saucepan, squeeze in a little lemon juice and warm gently over the lowest of heats.
Using a fork, beat the yoghurt with the egg yolks, flour and dried mint. Add a little salt and a lot of pepper and continue beating for at least a couple of minutes.
Pour the yoghurt into the carrot soup, stirring constantly, keeping the heat very low. Stir until the soup thickens slightly. Divide between bowls, adding a generous spoonful of millet to each. Drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle on a little bright red paprika followed by, if you like, a little parsley.