Of all the surprises I get when talking about 9 Grains, millet tops the list. I think of millet and its flour as a “stranger”; a food that’s familiar to very few. And yet most audience members express an awareness, if not downright familiarity, with this pretty and somewhat tricky food.
Perhaps that's because, as my mother pointed out when I went on a gluten-free diet in 2002, I was now forced to consume “bird food.” Bird seed mixes are loaded with millet, and our avian friends seem to love the grain. So it's no surprise that so many people know about millet.
Or maybe millet is known because of its long history. Centuries before corn entered the European diet my ancestors were enjoying millet. Centuries before then, people in millet’s origin region, what’s now China and Manchuria, were cultivating and cooking with it.
In our multi-cultural world it’s no difficult task to find a restaurant with millet on the menu or a store with bags of it on the shelves. One can, with a bit of searching, find the grain, the flour, puffed millet, millet cereal, even unusual varieties, such as Finger Millet. Or is it just me, finding millet everywhere because of relentless shopping and unstoppable curiosity?
Suffice it to say that millet is readily available in multiple forms, is relatively inexpensive, and can be used to make many excellent foods, as the peoples who originally cultivated it surely knew.
That said, there’s a bit of a problem. Straight up millet flour is the most bitter of comestible grains. Try making a batch of cookies using millet as the only flour and you’ll see what I mean. (Cookies are a great entry into baking explorations. They’re simple, fast, and require very little commitment of either materials or time. Plus when they succeed they’re loved by everyone!) So, what to do with millet? Find some way to cover up or tamp down the bitterness, or devise strategies to use it in a creative, toothsome way?
I choose the latter. Consider the greatly loved foods and drinks that use bitter ingredients: gin and tonic. Radicchio salad. Bitter melon stir-fries. Bittersweet chocolate! Make the right pair-up and you’ll end up with something unique. Millet plus juniper berries? Why not. Blended with a lemony, garlicky oil? Worth a try. Paired up with salty umami loaded fish sauce? Maybe. Just the right amount of sugar or syrup? Oh you bet!
Ironically that’s not how I first thought of and used millet. When I developed a line of gluten-free bread flours I let my nose guide me. A millet batter placed next to a sorghum batter suggested the aroma of whole-wheat bread. Brown rice flour would provide a welcome nuttiness. I put the three together and experimented with ratios until the results tasted right. Which in this case meant all the flavors subsumed into one another and no sharpness whatsoever.
These days I don’t shy from big and difficult flavors. For example, a favorite summer appetizer is thin slices of Hepatica fistulina mushroom atop overripe mozzarella cheese. The mushroom, colloquially known as Beefsteak, grows only in the wild, only on dead oak trees, and fruits rarely, about 1 year out of 5. It’s one of the few edible fungi that can safely be consumed raw, but few do because it’s shockingly sour. It is however quite beautiful, particularly when sliced. It’s inner structure closely mimics corned beef, and its texture is at once meat-like and yieldingly vegetative. Pairing with stale and stinky overripe mozzarella turns H fistulina into a food that’s both scary and compelling. Some say it’s like dirty socks dipped in lemon juice. I find it deeply rewarding.
All of this is one roundabout way of warning that the millet recipes I’ve developed are, well, different.