Sunday, March 09, 2008

Make-a-Plan Millet

One expression you learn quickly in Zimbabwe – right up there among “shame” (said, while shaking one’s head, instead of “too bad”) and “howzit?” (“how are things?”) – is “make a plan.” Need to adapt to a new situation or create a Plan “D”? You are making a plan.

But “make a plan” is more than simply an expression; it is also a way of life in a country where every day brings change – new prices, new shortages, new government policies. Making a plan can be time-consuming and can test your patience. It can also force you to be creative and encourage you to try new things. Like millet.

Zimbabwe is primarily a cash economy, which meant that the cash shortage in December caused havoc. The low supply and high demand for cash drove down the exchange rate for cash, while prices at the store continued to rise. As a result, basic items became expensive (think: $10 for a package of spaghetti, $8 for a container of yogurt on the verge of spoiling). At the same time, there was very little cash around to make purchases. So, when I spotted a kilo of millet on the shelves for the equivalent of 50 cents, I snapped it up. I had never cooked with millet before, but thought this was as good a time as any to learn. Lacking pasta, dairy products, and flour, it was time to make a plan.

I toasted the millet grains in a bit of oil, and then set them to simmer in water. My family from Boston called in the midst of my preparations. “What are you cooking?” my brother asked. “Millet,” I said. “Isn’t that bird food?” I suddenly remembered the big bags of millet my dad kept in the garage to feed the birds. “Well, um, I guess so. We couldn’t buy much at the shops and I had to make a plan.”

Millet comes in different types, with different colors (yellow, reddish, and grey-brown, like the kind I bought). Birds like it, but so do humans. In Zimbabwe, millet grains are typically pounded to make flour, which is then cooked with water to make sadza. Instead, I used the cooked whole grains to make a salad. My husband brought the salad to work for lunch. His Zimbabwean co-workers looked at his meal skeptically and asked, only half-jokingly, “What, your wife doesn’t pound your millet for you?”

It might not be typical to eat whole millet in Zimbabwe, but I’d recommend it. The grains are nutty-tasting and a tad chewy, with a distinctive earthy aroma. A kilo goes a long way, so I’ve been trying out a number of different recipes. I prefer millet served at room temperature tossed with sautéed or roasted vegetables, a bit of crumbly soft cheese, and a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. When a recipe calls for bulgur, quinoa, or couscous, you can always prepare millet as a substitute.

Millet is very nutritious (a good source of fiber, B vitamins, protein, iron…) and is gluten-free.

The recipe below combines Madhur Jaffrey’s basic method of cooking millet with the vegetables and spices from a recipe in a South African cookbook called “Quiet Food.” In the “Quiet Food” recipe, the millet mixture is made into patties and used to create a vegetarian version of frikkadels (South African
meatballs). I had trouble getting the patties to stick together, but liked the flavor of the mixture. So I made another plan, changing our meal from frikkadels to a well-textured, brightly-colored millet salad, with some fresh corn and fresh ricotta added in.

Next time you need to make a plan, make this millet!

Millet Salad with Carrot and Spinach
Serves 4-5

2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters olive oil, separated
1 cup / 200 grams millet (picked over, rinsed, drained and patted dry)
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters dried oregano
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters dried thyme
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters salt
1 tablespoon / 15 grams butter
1 large onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced or shredded
Kernels from a cob of fresh corn (optional)
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1½ cups / 45 grams fresh spinach, chopped
¾ cup crumbled fresh ricotta (you could use feta)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh thyme, for garnish

Have 2 cups / 500 milliliters of boiling water ready. Put 1 tablespoon / 15 milliliters of the oil in a medium saucepan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the millet. Fry, stirring frequently, for three minutes. Pour in the boiling water, cover, and set aside for 1 hour.

Uncover and add the oregano, thyme and salt. Stir. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer gently for 40 minutes. Check to make sure the grains are now tender, but with some bite. (If not, cook until they are like this.) Turn off the heat and leave covered for 15 minutes. Almost all of the water should be absorbed. If not, you can drain it off.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil and the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, carrot and optional corn and sauté until they are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until it has wilted. Remove from heat.

Combine the cooked millet, carrot mixture and cheese in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss. Serve at room temperature, garnished with thyme.


Mrs. W said...

Looks delicious. I've been considering millet lately, and I think this post has made up my mind.

I think it's very creative of you, too!

zlamushka said...

Lovely. I have pletny of millet sitting in my cupboard. I usually make pies out of it. Your salad is a very interesting idea.

Jeanne said...

THat looks really good - millet is one of those things that I always think I'll make into salad, enthusiastically buy, and then push around the back of my grocery cupboard for a few months ;-) Well done to you for turning the appalling food supply issues in Zimbabwe into an opportunity to try out new recipes, in true "make a plan" fashion. Love the references to "shame" and "howzit" - two concepts that I'll never fully explain to my Brit friends, along with "just now" ;-)

lefobserver said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeanne said...

Happy Easter Carolyn!

I have tagged you for a meme- hope you haven't already done it:

Aisha said...

Hi! This is a really creative recipe. :) Must be very challenging to live in a country like Zimbabwe. Would love to see some places in Africa someday.

oconnormoreen said...

I've read that I should feed it to Nate, bit I don't even know where to find it...

Jams said...

I think it looks great!

Suzanne said...

The picture alone has me hungry.
I will try your recipe soon and let you know how it turns out.

Loulou said...

This looks great! I love grains and haven't eaten millet in years!

If you're game, I've tagged you for a meme on the cooking site I contribute to, Hope you can join in!

Brikebrok said...

I'll try and I'll let you know about it!

Sorina said...

I like the sound and look of this. I shall mark this on my to do list.

~ Sil in Corea said...

Looks like a recipe I want to try. Happen's I've some millet on hand, too. Carrots here in Korea are huge and a little woody,so I'll cut them a bit smaller.

Best Wishes from Asia,
~ Sil in Corea