If you were to ask a half-dozen hungry people: "What's millet?" I suspect the answers would be shocking, to say the least.
Recently, when I posed that query around a full dinner table the responses were either biased or downright bizarre. One guest claimed that millet was a highly rare form of cracked wheat of little nutritional value to the body. Another insisted it was canary food. The remaining three had divided thoughts on the subject: that millet was either a French 19th-Century painter, a woman poet who burned the candle at both ends or a brand of expensive women's shoes.
You may conclude those were dispiriting replies to a man who is writing a book on grains. And particularly so because the question was put to a group of fairly decent cooks. But, it must be admitted, millet has been a rather unknown soldier even among the health-food rank and file. But not for long. The American Cancer Society and the American Heart Assn. recently proclaimed the nutritive value of millet to be higher in the amino acid lysine (one of the protein building blocks in the body's immune system) than any other cereal grain. With an added plus: Millet has twice the protein value of rice, sorghum, corn or oats.
If you gave yourself the millet quiz and also answered "something for the birds," you wouldn't have been entirely wrong. For until its emergence as a serious complex carbohydrate in the human diet, millet's most visible form was packaged bird seed.
I learned about millet's good taste long before I cared about its therapeutic qualities. This grain came into my life about 30 years ago with the employment of Lavinia Mumphard, who cleaned my apartment and compartmentalized my wardrobe for years until she died. Mumphard's forebears were Gullah people. She came from the islands between Charleston, S.C.,and Savannah, Ga., but odd conceits of flavoring and unique combinations in the same pot betrayed her African ancestry.
Mumphard believed everyone should eat "millies." She cooked them for her lunch and sometimes for mine as well. When I was feeling out of sorts and remained in bed, she would whip me up "a mess of curin' millies," which always had me on my feet the next day.
Her "millie" concoctions were inevitably boiled or stewed with some kind of fish or seafood. Mumphard's feet always hurt so she never walked farther than the corner market for ingredients; usually from the freezer case. But the "millies" always came with her.
In homage to the late and still very much lamented Mumphard, I have been eating millet more than ever in one form or another.
Recently I cooked up "millies" with two entirely different kinds of seafood as the basis for summer salads. I was not ill, but if I had been, either dish would have made a spectacular cure. Try them for a luncheon or dinner.
This millet-plus collation is named for the upper tines of Long Island's twin forks, the bay area that reputedly produces the best and tiniest scallops in the world.
NORTH FORK MILLET-SCALLOP SALAD
1/2 cup hulled millet seeds
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup white wine
1 clove garlic
1 pound bay scallops
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and finely diced
2 shallots, minced
1/4 cup chopped canned roasted sweet red peppers
1/8 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, or dash dried thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon, or 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup olive oil
Dash curry powder
Salt, freshly ground pepper
Chopped fresh parsley
Place millet in large heavy skillet and stir over medium-high heat until seeds turn golden, about 5 minutes. Millet will pop slightly as it browns. Remove from heat.
Combine millet with water in medium saucepan. Remove seeds from lemon and squeeze juice into liquid. Add lemon half as well. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and cook, covered, until millet is tender and all liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand, covered, 10 minutes. Discard lemon half and fluff millet with fork. Cool.
Meanwhile, combine wine with whole garlic in large non-corrosive saucepan. Heat to boiling. Stir in scallops and cook, stirring constantly, over high heat 3 minutes. Drain scallops, reserving liquid. Cool. Discard garlic clove.
Place cooled millet in salad bowl and toss in cucumbers, shallots, red peppers, thyme, tarragon and scallops. Set aside.
To make dressing, mash minced garlic with coarse salt in small bowl until paste is formed. Stir in mustard and lemon juice. Slowly whisk in olive oil, curry powder and 3 tablespoons reserved scallop broth.
Pour dressing over scallop-millet mixture. Toss well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. Sprinkle with parsley. Makes 6 servings.
To commemorate good swordfish fishing, have a millet plus salad of a different stripe--wherein good health meets haute cuisine.
SOUTH FORK MILLET-SWORDFISH SALAD
1/4 cup hulled millet seeds
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup minced celery