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Millet: It's Not Just For The Birds

(post, Sarah Pember)

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(Originally published at

After all the jokes about being a "rabbit," eating an excessive amount of grains and raw veggies....and after disregarding any commentary about being too "granola" or spending too much money in the natural food store...I have finally done it: I've turned into a walking health-conscious stereotype. I've not just "eaten like a bird" in the colloquial sense. On no! I've actually eaten like a bird. Literally. 

I have officially eaten bird seed.

Yes, I did just consume the grain composing the majority of common commercial birdseed. You put up a good fight, millet, trying to act all base and embarrassing and indigestible. "Only BIRDS eat me," you cried, laughing as thoughts of "What will others think of me?" raced through my head.

But then, I rationalized: "Birds are quite lovely, really, and they sing beautiful melodious songs. You can't hear a bird chirp without feeling a little lift in your heart. If eating bird seed brings me closer to that 'spring awakening' feeling...well, so be it!"

Not this Spring Awakening.

I had purchased the millet from, of course, a bulk bin at the natural food stores. Being obsessed with trying out all the grains I possibly can find (and constantly read about), and having read about Jenna's obsession with millet bread on Eat, Live, Run, I thought I'd give millet a try.

But, what to do with it? I had learned that millet is one of the oldest grains in the world, mentioned in the Bible as a component of bread, and the most common grain in China until rice became a staple crop. It's listed as one of the "World's Healthiest Foods"and supposedly contains high levels of manganese and magnesium [yeah, I don't really know the difference either]. Additionally, it has all the other benefits of whole grains in general: lowering risk of Type II diabetes, etc.

But how to cook this magical mystery grain, so often eaten 'raw' by birds the world (or at least the country) over?

I did the natural thing and turned to Mark Bittman, NY Times columnist (and blogger!) and author of How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (along with a number of other cookbooks and food references). [Not to be confused with my friend Mark Pittman...seriously, gets me every time.] I figured, if he knows how to cook everything, he's got to know how to cook millet! Since I was looking up information about cooking birdseed, I naturally chose the vegetarian version.

In the book, Mr. Bittman had a recipe for an Autumn Millet Bake involving butternut squash that looked scrum-diddly-umptious (and super-cala-fraga-listic), but I didn't have butternut squash...nor did I have pumpkin seeds that were not incorporated into trail mix already....nor did I want to make a 9x13 pan of anything (I'm cooking for one, remember)...

So I said, "Thank you, Mr. Bittman, but I'll take it from here." Bid him adieu, and put him back on the shelf for another day.

I didn't have butternut squash, but I did have these rather unfortunate looking sweet potatoes that I wanted desperately to salvage (I think I can, I think I can...).

So, I laboriously peeled an diced them into 1-inch-cubes. [Ha! When do you EVER get perfect, 1-inch cubes. I mean, maybe if you have the best knife skills in the world and waste a lot of potato filing down the edges to form the spud into a rectangular box...but seriously. Let's call them "chunks of about 1-inch in proportion," and as long as they are relatively the same size--no Papa Bears, Mama Bears, AND Baby Bears---Goldilocks (or you) will be good to go.]

I put the millet into a small frying pan, sprayed it with some olive oil cooking spray, and toasted up those little grains for about 3 minutes. (Meanwhile I was rifling through my pantry for some dried cranberries and spilled a whole box, minus 2 oz. from dinner a few nights ago, of pasta on the ground. This was highly comical, although only in retrospect, and, therefore, it might have been a little longer than 3 minutes that my millet toasted, as I was fighting back the puppies while trying to clean up the pasta....) I knew the millet was ready because it started to smell like beautifully toasted corn.

I spread the millet into the bottom of an oil (or cooking spray) coated 8 inch square pan.

Then, I took about 1/4 cup of dried cranberries, covered them with water, and popped them in the microwave for about 20 seconds to rehydrate them just a bit. (Not sure if this is really necessary, but I didn't want to end up with crispers in the end.)

On top of the millet, I evenly distributed my sweet potato chunks. I sprinkled the cranberries evenly on top of the potatoes. Then I added some sage, thyme, salt, and pepper.

AND the piece de resistance: a drizzle of honey and a drizzle of maple syrup!

Pour 1/3 cup of water and 1/3 cup of milk, warmed just a lil' in the microwave, over the whole thing.

Covered it up with aluminum foil and popped it into a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes.

Then I uncovered that beautiful birdseed bounty and sprinkled some chopped toasted pecans on top, followed by another 10 minutes in the oven, which I turned up to 400 degrees for a nice toasting.


Who knew birdseed could taste so good? The sweet potatoes cooked perfectly, light and fluffy with just a hint of maple and honey...the tart little punch of the cranberries and the grainy texture of the millet made for a delightful flavor and texture explosion...

Polly might want a cracker, but Sarah is sticking to birdseed.


Sweet Potato Millet Bake
adapted from Mark Bittman's Autumn Millet Bake
(Makes 4 side-dish servings)

1/2 cup millet
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes/chunks
1/4 cup dried cranberries
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp ground sage
1/2 tsp ground thyme
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. maple syrup
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
2 Tblsp. chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Put dry millet in a small frying pan. Spray with olive oil cooking spray and toast over medium heat, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. (The millet will start to brown and give off a 'toasted corn'-like scent.)
3. Spread millet into a 9-inch square baking dish, coated with cooking spray.
4. Evenly distribute the sweet potato 'chunks' on top of the millet.
5. In a separate bowl, cover the dried cranberries with water and heat in the microwave for 20-30 seconds.
6. Evenly distribute cranberries over the sweet potatoes and millet.
7. Sprinkle sage and thyme on top of sweet potatoes and cranberries. Add a generous dash of salt and freshly ground pepper (a lot if you love it, a little if you don't).
8. Drizzle honey and maple syrup over everything.
9. Combine milk and water, then warm in the microwave for about 15-20 seconds. Pour over everything.
10. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes.
11. Uncover (be careful not to burn yourself!), sprinkle with chopped pecans, and turn up heat to 400 degrees. Bake for about 10 minutes more, or until the casserole is browned nicely!

if millet is unavailable, you may substitute quinoa, bulgar, or amaranth [although if you can't find millet, you probably can't find amaranth... :)]