Millet is the most marvelous cereal you’ve never heard of, although you’ve definitely seen it a thousand times because unhulled millet is the main ingredient in bird seed. Birds love it and people should, too. I can’t figure out why it hasn’t become trendy like quinoa, because it shares many of the same characteristics: They’re both gluten-free and packed with protein and fiber. One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. Millet has less (6 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber) but it’s also an excellent source of calcium, potassium and iron.
However, in my humble opinion, millet has a superior flavor to quinoa (or “spider eggs,” as my daughter calls quinoa, pushing it testily to the side of her plate). Quinoa’s neutral taste makes it a good base for warm or cold salads or to combine with other foods, but it’s rather bland on its own. Millet, however, has a wonderfully nutty, slightly sweet flavor and its hard, round grains, which swell to three times their size when cooked, have satisfying heft.
I have purchased millet in the bulk section of Fred Meyer and QFC. You can also find millet at WinCo, New Seasons and Whole Foods, either in bulk or in a bag.
I should point out that millet is often called an “ancient grain,” but millet is not technically a grain. It’s a cereal, which means that it’s harvested from a plant in the grass family. (Grains can also include seeds harvested from grass plants, like wheat and oats, but more broadly include legumes, like chickpeas, lentils and peanuts. Botany is complicated.)
Millet is cooked the same way as rice, by boiling and steaming, except with more water. Rice is 2 cups of water per 1 cup of uncooked grains and millet is 3 cups of water per 1 cup of uncooked seeds. It takes 30 minutes from the time the millet is added to boiling water until it’s done. Not every single seed will have softened, lending the millet an occasional, ever-so-slight crunch. It’s best if enjoyed right away because, like cornmeal mush or polenta, it solidifies as it cools. But that means that, like cornmeal and polenta, it can be spread into a pan then sliced and fried.
Warm Millet Cereal
3 cups water
1 cup hulled millet
A few dashes of salt
Bring water and salt to a roiling boil. Add 1 cup hulled millet and immediately turn temperature to low. Cook for ½ hour. Fluff with a fork and serve while warm with butter, honey and milk.
Millet is as versatile as rice, perhaps more so. There are a million sweet and savory ways to enjoy millet, from millet granola, millet tabbouleh and millet falafel to millet veggie burgers, millet chili and even millet chocolate cake (find these recipes as well as a millet cooking primer at nutriciously.com/millet-recipes/.)
Many recipes recommend toasting millet before boiling for an extra nutty flavor. Some folks saute the raw seeds over low heat with a little olive oil before cooking in broth for savory dishes. I prefer the simplest, most direct method: Bring 3 cups of water and several dashes of salt to a boil, then add 1 cup of millet, cover the pan and cook on the lowest setting for exactly half an hour. Give your millet a stir or fluff it with a fork and serve it right away, while it’s still soft.
My favorite way to eat millet, and indeed the only way I eat millet, is for breakfast with butter, honey and a little milk, just like oatmeal or cream of wheat. This is because my grandparents served me millet for breakfast whenever I stayed at their house. It was the ’70s and they were classic California health food nuts. My grandfather enthusiastically took an array of supplements like kelp tablets, full of manganese and zinc, and dried mango pills, good for digestion. He knew the vitamin and mineral content of every food that graced his table and he enjoyed elaborating on their nutritional value. If that sounds tedious, it wasn’t. As a kid, I was fascinated by this information and thought he was the smartest person I knew except for my dad. I also wanted to get all those vitamins in my body and would beg him for extra kelp tablets like they were jelly beans instead of salty gray pills that dissolved into chalky grit in my mouth.
These last few months have been extremely stressful in our house. My husband is in the middle of a job transition and my daughter is finishing out the winter term at Clark College and preparing to go to Western Washington University in the fall. I’m just hanging in there, riding each wave of change as it comes. Is it any wonder that I’ve been craving millet for breakfast? It’s an instant reminder of a time when all my needs were met and I was surrounded by people who loved me. I suppose those two conditions are still present here in my middle age but my oh my, it’s a lot of worry to be the adult trying to keep all the plates in the air.
So, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to eat like a bird — literally! — cook yourself a bowl of millet and have a chirpy day. At the very least, make yourself a bowl of something that you find comforting. Sometimes it’s nicer to eat off the plates rather than keep them spinning.