Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Millet: “Often Called Birdseed in the U.S.”

It started with Aunt Carole giving me a bag of millet seed: “What do you do with this stuff?” She’d bought a bunch of it somewhere and hadn’t found anything decent to make with it. I suppose you can cook it simply, as a grain, like rice or quinoa or buckwheat kasha. It was flattering that she would think I had a clue about its usage.

It’s taken me a while to act on this uncommon gift. Millet. Millet.

It’s like tiny yellow balls.

Here in America, it’s a primary ingredient in birdseed mixes—in fact, of the inexpensive birdseed mixes. What birds eat it, exactly? Most simply flick it out of the feeder onto the ground. Mourning doves, with their muscular crops, can digest the stuff, I believe.

As I’ve told you (see sidebar “About Me”), I’ve been teaching myself Indian cooking. One of my references has been India Cookbook, by Pushpesh Pant (London: Phaidon Press, 2010). It’s thorough, well-organized, and provides a good introduction to the different regional cuisines.

In the glossary of that book, millet is defined as “an alternative to rice. The seeds can be used whole or ground and have a slightly nutty taste. Hulled millet is also often called birdseed in the US.” . . . Called birdseed? No, Mr. Pant, it is birdseed!

Why don’t more people here cook millet as a side dish, a grain? I know there are people interested in it because it’s gluten-free. But as a side dish, I guess it must be hard to beat rice and other more popular grains. So millet, I thought, might be better as a flour. And, being interested in flatbreads recently, I consulted my book.

There are some recipes in the “Breads” section of the India Cookbook that use millet flour. I decided to try the simplest one first.

And it is simple, indeed! Bajare ki Roti (Millet Bread) is not something I’ll try again. It is, essentially, millet flour plus water and a pinch of salt, mixed to a “semi-hard dough,” and allowed to sit for half an hour. Then (more or less) you make it into “flattened rounds” with your hands, then cook on a hot griddle or tawa on both sides . . . well, maybe I wasn’t doing it right, but it sure didn’t “puff up,” and instead of getting “crisp,” it just got hard. Like you might expect, actually.

And buttering it didn’t really help much.

For a breakfast, it was pretty grim. I’d gotten up early to grind the millet seeds into flour in my spice grinder, straining it through a wire sieve to make sure it was smooth. I’d followed the instructions pretty carefully, and the results were flat, hard disks that might have been used as hubcaps, if they were not brittle.

Sue and I gnawed on them for a bit, sipping coffee, then Sue got up and found a cup of yogurt. I kept chewing on the one I’d taken, just for the point of it. The flavor was indeed kind of nutty. Yeah . . . nutty, gritty, dense, hard, dry, bland. We agreed they might be welcome if you were, say, going on a long sea voyage, in the eighteenth century.

We didn’t throw them away, however. Because I had another plan!

I redeemed them, and also my labor in making millet flour in the first place: Another recipe in Mr. Pant’s book is “Bajari-Methi na Tepla,” or “Shallow-fried Fenugreek and Millet Bread.” This flatbread recipe uses many more ingredients, including whole wheat flour, and it definitely showed more promise. And apart from my time, what did I have to lose?

These teplas use equal parts whole wheat flour and millet flour. I made “millet flour” by pulverizing, then running through a sieve, the “Millet Bread” I’d made previously (yes, it was that dry, even with the oil it was fried in).

Additional ingredients include coriander powder, cumin, turmeric, chili powder, ginger, brown sugar, salt, and fenugreek (methi) leaves (although it’s harder to find fresh methi leaves, you can buy them dried at an international store, and they keep for a while if you seal them up really well).

The dough is moistened with yogurt (it calls for “soured natural yogurt,” but I used plain yogurt). (You can see why my bread-baking often doesn’t “turn out,” since I often don’t follow recipes very closely . . .)

And guess what! These were great! They even puffed up a little—how exciting! The methi/fenugreek leaves give it a distinctive butterscotch-like flavor. They’re really delicious alone! I had one of the first teplas out of the pan and noshed on it while I fried the rest. I had to restrain myself from having any more!

And that is the story of the millet. Aunt Carole, this is a great recipe! If you are wanting a recipe for millet (flour), here you go.

Fried Fenugreek and Millet Flatbread
Based on Pushpesh Pant, India Cookbook, p. 622.

Mix together the following:
1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. millet flour
1 t. ground coriander
1 t. ground cumin
1/4 t. turmeric
1 t. chili powder (to taste; depends on how hot your chili powder is!)
1 t. ground fresh ginger
2 T. brown sugar
pinch of salt
4 T. dried fenugreek leaves (find these at an International grocery)
2 T. vegetable oil (plus more for shallow-frying)
1 c. plain yogurt (or more, to make semi-soft dough)

Dough should be semi-soft, light, rather sticky.

Knead the dough briefly on a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 12 equal portions and roll into balls, flattening them with your hands (hence the name tepla, apparently), and roll with a rolling pin into rounds 4–5 inches in diameter. Keep rolling them out as you fry them.

Heat a little oil in a heavy-based skillet over medium-high heat (as for pancakes). Add a tepla and shallow-fry about 2 minutes until dark patches form on side facing pan. Turn over and cook another minute or two, until dark patches form on the second side. Repeat with remaining dough balls until finished. Serve hot.

I would recommend having these for breakfast, perhaps with some plain yogurt, or yogurt and chopped tomatoes. Or chutney, if you’re into it. I think they’d be a yummy platform for simple soft-cooked eggs, too.

They are great as a snack, too!

Here is an informative cooking video for making a very similar recipe: “Methi Thepla or Dhebra, by Bhavna”. Bhavna points out that her family really enjoys these methi thepla as a snack while they’re traveling. What a great idea!

Though teplas are slightly sweet, I think they are definitely more in the “savory” category.

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