How We Eat is a weekly column from Julie Van Rosendaal exploring food trends, news, and of-the-moment recipes.
Millets, an underrated crop known for their adaptability, are having a moment this year. The United Nations declared 2023 to be the International Year of Millets, aiming to raise awareness of their suitability to grow under adverse and changing climate and conditions. Millets are sustainable, hardy, drought-resistant crops that are ready to harvest about 45 days after planting, faster than wheat, rice, oats and quinoa.
Though many of us associate millet with birdseed – the kind scattered by the handful, or those dried branches of clustered seeds you clip onto a cage – it refers to a diverse group of cereals that have been cultivated to feed humans (as well as animals) for thousands of years. The earliest domestication of millet was in North China around 10,000 years ago, and the grains remain a vital staple crop in many parts of Asia and Africa.
India is currently the world’s largest producer of millets, but we do grow it here in Canada – mostly in the prairie provinces and Ontario. Recent experimentation with cover crops on Prince Edward Island has shown pearl millet, the most common variety worldwide, returned more carbon to the soil than any other crop while reducing harmful nitrates from entering the soil.
If you’re new to cooking with millets, a family that includes sorghum and teff, they’re similar to but starchier than quinoa. Gluten free, with a very mild, nutty flavour and light texture, millets can be cooked like rice or pasta and served as a side like couscous. Or you can make it creamier, like porridge or risotto. Plus, its sticky texture makes cooked millet easy to shape into patties to fry in a skillet, like a potato cake.
The grains come in a range of sizes – all of them tiny – in shades from creamy white to mahogany to purple, and are often turned into flour. Sorghum is larger, the kernels about a third the size of a dried corn kernel, and just as poppable – cook them in a bit of oil on the stovetop, and they’ll burst open just like popcorn.
Batch lunch recipe: Millet with Corn, Beans and Avocado
Like most grains, millets make a delicious base for a wilt-free salad. Of course, salads don’t require precise measurements, and you could make use of any ingredients in your fridge – diced bell peppers, jicama or mango would all be delicious here too, or try roasted sweet potato, root veggies or winter squash.
3/4 cup dry millet or sorghum
olive, canola or other vegetable oil, for cooking
1 ear corn, shucked
1/2-1 cup cooked or canned black beans, pinto beans or chickpeas
2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cumin
2 tbsp dry sorghum (optional, but fun)
salt, to taste
1 small shallot or a small chunk of purple onion, finely chopped
1/4 English cucumber (or 1-2 minis), diced
a handful of cherry or grape tomatoes, whole or halved
1 avocado, pitted and diced
a chunk of feta or cotija cheese, crumbled
fresh parsley and/or cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup olive, canola or other vegetable oil
2-3 tbsp lime juice or white wine vinegar
2 tsp honey, maple syrup or brown sugar
1/4 tsp curry paste/powder or cumin
Cook the millet in salted water according to package directions – the cooking time will depend on the variety, but should be 15 to 20 minutes – until tender. Drain in a sieve and set aside to cool completely. (Millet can be cooked ahead and kept in the fridge for up to five days.)
Heat a drizzle of oil in a large skillet. Cut the kernels off the cob of corn and add them to the skillet, along with the black beans. Sprinkle with the chili powder, cumin and salt to taste and cook, stirring often, for 4-5 minutes, or until the corn is starting to turn golden on the edges. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
To pop the sorghum, drizzle some oil into a small saucepan with a lid, set over medium-high heat, add the sorghum and cook, shaking the pan as if you were making popcorn, until the kernels pop. When the popping has slowed (don’t worry if some kernels remain unpopped), remove from the heat and sprinkle with salt.
Stir the chopped shallot into the millet and spread out in a shallow bowl or on a platter. Top with the cooled (or still slightly warm) corn and beans, cucumber, tomatoes, avocado, feta, parsley or cilantro.
To make the dressing, whisk or shake together the oil, lime juice or vinegar, honey, curry paste and a pinch of salt. Drizzle over the millet and veggies, then top with the popped sorghum, including any unpopped kernels. (If you’re taking it to work or a party, pack the popped sorghum separately to add at the last minute, to keep it crunchy.)