THE BLOG

Meatless Monday: Grassroots Change

02/21/2011 09:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The seeds of change are spreading, taking root in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya -- kind of like millet. Like freedom, it's vital, natural, ancient, nourishing, and like the current push for freedom across the Middle East, it can't help but spread. They're both grassroots. Literally.

Millet cooks and eats like grain, but it's a grass seed. First known as a wild grass, it became a cultivated crop in China as far back 7,000 years ago. In fact, millet predates rice in China and is still the more popular grain in some parts of Asia. Some food historians duke it out as to whether millet truly got its start in China or North Africa, but it's flourished in both places for millennia, grown as a staple crop, eaten as a starch, and enjoyed as booze. The Chinese made millet wine during the Han dynasty and in Africa, it became a sort of beer. Millet, like freedom, can be intoxicating.

Marco Polo tried it, probably discovering it first in Asia, where it was cooked in milk like a porridge. He took the millet with him from one place and brought it another, sowing the seeds, as it were. And wherever millet lands, like freedom, it tends to take root.

A hit in Sumeria, Assyria and Mesopotamia, tall-growing millet was among the greenery festooning the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Somalis often paired millet with beans, another sustaining staple. They brought millet to Egypt around 3,000 BC, and the Egyptians tried it a new way, grinding it into flour and baking it into bread. Millet bread even rates a mention or two in the Bible. It was perhaps the original source of unleavened bread that sustained the Jews when they fled an Egyptian despot. It's kind of nice karma this time around the people of Egypt decided to stay put and booted out their ruler, instead.

North Africa embraced Egypt's concept of unleavened millet bread and Ethiopia still uses a variety of millet -- teff -- to make injera, a traditional fabulous spongy bread used to soak up wats, or stews. India got behind unleavened millet bread, too, and enjoys millet roti to this day.

Millet came to Europe during the Middle Ages and was prevalent in Italy and Greece. Then potatoes came along and stole millet's thunder. Since then, it's been . . . pretty much nothing. Except for a small region of France which still celebrates millet for the great grass it is, most Westerners don't know millet or think of it only as bird seed. Our winged friends shouldn't be the only ones to benefit. Millet tastes nutty, is high in protein, B vitamins, calcium, iron and potassium. It contains no gluten and unlike other grains, is alkaline.

Funny, we've got a handle on democracy (not to mention Facebook) in the West, but we've left millet behind. I'm betting on a resurgance. With an estimated 6,000 varieties of millet across the globe, it's nothing if not adaptable. Happy to grow in drier conditions and harsher terrain, it's more environmentally-friendly than rice, since it requires less water. And yet it soaks up water like nobody's business when you cook it, tripling in volume. A cupful can feed a crowd. This matters now more than ever, when climate change is causing food shortages and escalating food prices all around the globe. Even here.

To survive, we're going to have to change the way we eat, change it back to the legume- and grain-centric diet of our forebearers. Think millet, not meat. It's cheaper for both farmers and consumers, feeds more people, causes far less environmental harm, nourishes and sustains us.

The seeds of change are taking root all over the Middle East, and they taste delicious. May they inspire change in us, too.

Millet with Tunisian Roasted Vegetables

If you can polenta or oatmeal, you can millet, in less time and with less aggro, too. You can make it with water or vegetable broth instead of milk or soy milk, but the milk brings out its creaminess and reveals millet to be the true treat it is.

Like oatmeal, it can be enjoyed as a hot, nourishing cereal, sprinkled with cinnamon, topped with fruit and nuts, drizzled with butter or syrup. Like polenta, it's best eaten straight away, when it's hot and fluffy. It thickens and clumps as it cools. Enjoy it gilded with cheese, garnished with tomato sauce or make it the basis for a fabulous main by adding Tunisian roasted vegetables.

Basic Millet

1 cup millet
2-1/2 cups milk (or plain soy milk)
Toast millet by stirring it in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes, or until grains just turn golden. This brings out the natural sweet nuttiness. Pour in 2 cups of milk, stir and bring to a boil.

Cover and reduce heat to low for 10 minutes. Millet with have thickened and most of the liquid will be absorbed. Stir to fluff and add remaining half cup of milk.

Continue stirring for another few minutes, until millet becomes a lovely creamy porridge.

Tunisian Roasted Vegetables

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, cut into strips
3 carrots, sliced
1 zucchini, sliced 
2 ribs celery, sliced
8 ounces mushrooms, quartered (or halved, if small)
1 large onion sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon harissa (Moroccan chili sauce) or chili sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon lemon juice
a pinch of sea salt
1 bunch cilantro, chopped fine
1/2 cup crumbled feta, if desired

Slice and chop vegetables.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, add olive oil, tomato paste, harissa, cumin and lemon juice.  Stir together until it forms a thick, smooth sauce.  Add vegetables and minced garlic and toss to coat.

Place vegetables on cookie sheet or shallow roasting pan and roast at 400 for 15 minutes.  Give vegetables a stir.  Roast for another 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender.  Salt to taste and garnish with chopped cilantro.

Serve vegetables with millet and optional feta.

Serves 4.