My friend Hema in New Jersey asked me, how can I use local grains in the United States? While there are several wonderful cookbooks featuring such American staples as buckwheat, barley, rye it is not as easy to find recipes using millet and many recipes using these traditional yet less common grains call for even more specialized ingredients. Of course it is well worth the effort, but what if you want to make something simple with millet right now?
One way to jump right into using locally grown millets is to make idlis with them. Black gram, water and salt are the only other ingredients you need.
Now that I have tried it, I can say, it works! Of course the millet isn’t grown in New Jersey but it is not imported from overseas either. Apart from being nutritious, proso millet enhances weed control and adapts well to many soil types and climate conditions. So says the The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. So you can support sustainable agriculture while adding another grain to your diet.
The millet that you are likely to find in the grocery store in the US is Proso Millet, though it will simply be labelled millet.(And if you want it in India you are in luck because it grows there too – find its local name in this handy list prepared by the Swaraj Foundation. Called వరిగలు in Telugu, it is part of a traditional dish to celebrate the harvest during Sankranti, called వరిగాన్నం.)
Since we are talking about millets grown and harvested in the US, I will not assume that readers are already familiar with the process of making idlis and will list the steps.
For someone new to idlis, it may seem an elaborate operation. Soak, grind, ferment, steam … but look at it another way:
Step 1: Soak
Literally, just add water! The grains and beans soak by themselves. Whatever you do while they do their thing, you will be multitasking!
Step 2: Grind
This is a chore, but thanks to electricity and modern appliances, it involves little more than pushing buttons. Nostalgic for the fluffier texture and more nuanced flavor of the stone ground batter of yore? There’s a gadget for you too … the wet grinder!
Step 3: Ferment
You can do this in your sleep! Or to be precise, the batter will ferment while you sleep.
Step 4: Steam
Pour it in and it works! Presto – pour the batter into the plates, stack them up in the idli steamer.
And now, Proso Millet Idlis
1 cup black gram – called minapappu in Telugu and urad dal in Hindi. You can use whole or split black gram, but keep the peel for whole grain goodness.
2 cups millet (in the grocery stores in the United States, Proso Millet is usually just called Millet)
Salt – to taste (~1 tsp)
Wash and soak the grains for 8 hours – overnight. Grind to a smooth batter and allow to ferment and rise in a warm place for 8 hours – overnight. If it is not warm enough it could take longer for the batter to rise. In cold climates or climate-controlled environments, you can keep the batter in the warmest corner of the house or just turn your oven on for 1 minute and then turn it off and keep the batter there to rise.
Batter should double in bulk. If you are feeling impatient, and it has not doubled, if it has risen to some extent and looks a little porous when you stir it, you can still use it. It might be better for dosas (see below) at this stage but you can still try it.
Oil your idli plates and pour batter into each place. Don’t pour a heaping amount because these will rise as they steam.
Place the stack of idli plates into an idli steamer.
If you don’t have an idli steamer you can use a pressure cooker without the pressure or a large covered pot. Don’t forget to pour water in the bottom of the steamer (or pot). Enough so that you never “run out of steam” but not enough to touch the bottom of the bottom plate – that might make the bottom plate soggy once it starts to boil. Especially if your idli plates are slotted.
Let them steam for 20 minutes, then wait another 20 minutes before removing them. If your idli steamer has a whistle start the 20 minutes when the whistling begins. After 5 minutes on high heat, you can reduce the flame to medium-high but the steam should keep coming. It should keep whistling, albeit at a lower volume.
p.s. The same batter makes a great dosa. Pour it on a hot pan or griddle, spread evenly and cover. Flip, let the second side cook, and voila: Proso Millet Dosa. You can make it soft and fluffy like a pancake or thin and crispy like a crepe. Depending on how thickly you have spread it, it will take 1-2 minutes to cook each side. I usually oil the pan for the first one and use no oil for the subsequent ones.
Proso Millet from the Millet site.
Millets: Future of Food and Farming from the Swaraj Foundation.
More varieties of millets on Ask Amma