There are certain foods that immediately spring to mind when thinking of the grain craze of the health industry – certainly quinoa, and perhaps barley or sorghum. Millet, cultivated across the world for thousands of years, has unfortunately not received the same publicity and praise. But in South Africa, millet is actually easier to grow than the ‘fancy’ grains we pay premium price for at health stores. It is also, as most grains are, incredibly good for you. Set aside a patch in your back yard to hark back to history and grow this ancient grain.
What is millet?
Millet is not easy to find in your local grocery store, so it’s understandable that little is known about the grain or the plant it comes from. The most widely grown millet plant – pearl millet – is related to some of our favourite ornamental fountain grasses, with the scientific name Pennisetum glaucum. It is a gluten-free grain high in protein and fibre, and contains the highest calcium content of any cereal grain. Travel back in time 4000 years and you would have seen millet farmed in West Africa near the Sahara Desert. Today, it is grown in countries across the world, with most production occurring in Africa and Asia.
Growing your own
As purchasing millet requires some light detective work, it is far easier and more rewarding for gardeners to grow their own. These plants are not fussy, responding well to a range of conditions and showing little to no problems with pests and diseases. Plant from seed towards the end of spring and beginning of summer. Acidic, well-draining soils are best for this carefree grain. The seeds should sprout incredibly quickly (within a week), after which they can be thinned to a spacing of around 13 – 15cm. In the early stages of growth, millet
benefits from a soil rich in nitrogen through the addition of compost or a slow-release fertiliser. As the grass grows to a mature height of 3m, it will need plenty of water. In areas with summer rainfall, ideal conditions for millet production, the rain should take care of all watering. Cut down on watering once the plant starts flowering and ensure the soil is never waterlogged. A thick layer of mulch will help the soil retain moisture while keeping weeds down. Just over a month after flowering, the seeds should be ready to harvest when they turn a golden brown. Remove the stalks with a knife and tie the ends together, leaving to dry in an area away from rain. After a few weeks, thresh the stalks by hand by holding them inside a large bucket and hitting them repeatedly against the sides.
• 2 butternuts
• 2 cups millet
• 250g basil pesto
• 1⁄2 cup pine nuts, toasted
• 1⁄2 cup parmesan, grated
• Salt and pepper
Cut the butternuts in half vertically. Brush with olive oil and cook at 200°C until soft. While the butternut cooks, simmer the millet in a pot for 20 minutes. Remove part of the butternut centre and chop into cubes. Mix the butternut cubes, basil pesto, salt and pepper with the millet until combined. Spoon the mixture into the butternut halves and top with toasted pine nuts and grate parmesan.
Millet can be popped similarly to popcorn. These seeds have a comparable flavour but are much smaller than traditional popcorn. Place the seeds in a pre-heated dry pan and shake until the seeds change colour. It makes a great crunchy addition to salads or can be used as breadcrumb replacement.
Using millet in the kitchen
Millet is often used as a replacement for rice. To cook the grain, simply add to a pot with double the amount of water and simmer for around twenty minutes. It can also be sweetened to make a breakfast porridge, or used in salads similar to quinoa. Its taste is reminiscent of corn, but the nutty flavours can be enhanced by toasting them in a pan before cooking. If you have any leftovers, toss them in your birdfeeder – they’ll love it.