It’s a cold, snowy February day in our fair city, and just when you think finding fresh, affordable local produce would be impossible, remember this: It’s actually even closer to you than your neighborhood farmers market.
As with all things locavore, the good news just gets better: Not only can you easily and affordably find healthy sustenance for your mind, body and spirit in the middle of winter, the star of this month’s column will also assuage those winter doldrums by providing an outlet for that spring fever fueled by seed catalogs and random 60-degree days. The miracle cure for your health fantasies, planting dreams and beyond? Sprouting!
As with most things sustainable, sprouting is a win-win situation. In addition to being a healthy food that can be fresher and require even less energy than what you might buy at the farmers market in mid-July, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to expand your planting knowledge. I believe everyone has a green thumb, and sprouting proves this — if you’ve never considered yourself a grower, try sprouting. You can do it with just a handful of seeds, a glass jar and water. The instant gratification of the process is fabulous — you see dramatic growth each day and have an edible harvest in three to seven days, depending on the seed. Consider sprouting the ultimate in locavore living: You don’t even have to leave your house to find superb, sustainable and delicious eating. And the icing on the cake is that you can slap a “Who’s Your Farmer?” bumper sticker on your bicycle basket and revel in the knowledge that it’s you. As the world evolves, growing our own food is becoming more important, and here’s a wonderful and easy way to dip your toes into the ocean of planting potential.
A welcoming aspect of sprouting is that you don’t need soil or (much) sunlight to grow these germinating gems — many can be grown in a mason jar and require darkness. If you’re interested in the soul growth connected with seasonal alignment, sprouts are a perfect reflection of the opportunities provided by winter, which revolve around drawing deep nourishment from this period of decreased light by focusing inward and reflecting on our own darkness. I’m continually amazed by the education and affirmation offered by the plant world, and my recent exploration of sprouting has taken this to new heights. While I went into this winter intending to celebrate the season in all its teachings, I must admit to an increasing lust for the touch of sunlit warmth on my arms and the joyous anticipation of emerging daffodils and budding trees. I realized the depth of this desire after my first seed order arrived (I ordered at least five times more seeds than I can possibly plant); the sight of my first dandelion sent me running for a camera. The natural world provides a rich language for our personal journeys, so as we embrace these final days of stillness and cold, we can savor the vibrant nourishment inherent in the season, and feed our minds and bodies with a bounty of fresh sprouts.
With the shifting temperatures, emerging allergenic aggravators and slew of random germs that seem to percolate through the air this time of year, good nutrition is especially important in staying healthy, and sprouts are an excellent support for wellness intentions. Overflowing with vitamins, minerals, proteins and enzymes necessary for the body to function optimally, sprouts deliver them in a form that is extremely easy to digest and assimilate, and many sprouts are known for improving the efficiency of digestion.
So what are sprouts? They’re a superfood with potent healing abilities, often containing even higher concentrations of nutrients than some of the most nutritious vegetables; one recent study showed that a small amount of broccoli sprouts had the same cancer-fighting power as a relative bounty of fully grown broccoli. Some of the most complete and nutritionally beneficial of all foods, sprouts are alkalizing, living foods that continue to grow even after harvesting and contain vital antioxidants and phytochemicals. A reliable year-round source of vitamin C, beta-carotene and many B vitamins, they also preserve our body’s enzymes, which is extremely important.
In a nutshell, sprouting a grain or legume pre-digests the food for us by breaking down the starches into simpler carbohydrates and the proteins into free amino acids; thus, our own enzymes don’t have to work so hard. Sprouting also removes enzyme inhibitors and makes sprouts even easier to digest. Obviously, they’re always fresh — you can harvest them seconds before consumption — so the life force in them is sky-high. Also, depending on what you’re sprouting, you can produce a decadent variety of colors, aromas, textures and flavors. With eyes closed, try inhaling deeply while biting into a freshly harvested fenugreek sprout.
Another upside to these seedy sensations is their affordability. If you thought eating organically throughout the year wasn’t in your budget, think again: You can find a bag of organic sprouting seeds at most health-food stores for about $3, and that will provide you with several harvests over a couple of weeks. Or you can go the pauper route and just buy bulk organic beans or seeds, though germination rates might be less dependable.
So how do you get started? I encourage you to experiment with any seed or bean that tickles your fancy, but some of the more common seeds for sprouting include lentils, alfalfa, fenugreek, broccoli, peas, radish, and red clover.
• A glass jar (1 qt. to gallon)
• A bowl of the right size and weight to prop up the jar
• Some cheesecloth, screen or netting, and a rubber band
• Fresh water
• Seeds with good germination, preferably grown organically. Avoid purchased garden seeds unless you know they aren’t treated. Most natural food stores have the common sprouting seeds; if in doubt, ask if it’s organic.
Directions (for most small seeds — many can be sprouted in the dark, but check the package or do a little research to find out the individual needs of your seeds):
1. Soak 1-4 tbs. of seed in a wide-mouth jar. Cover with mesh and secure with rubber band. Add water, swirl and drain. Add 1 cup cool water and soak overnight.
2. Drain the seeds and store in a dark place (I use a kitchen cabinet). Invert the jar and prop it at an angle in a bowl so the excess water can drain.
3. Rinse seeds two to three times a day with cool water, swirl, drain and prop in the cabinet between rinsings.
4. Enjoy in three to six days, when sprouts are 3-5 centimeters (1-2 inches) long. After thoroughly drying the sprouts, transfer them to a covered container and eat or refrigerate. Different seeds require different lengths of time — you can find either on the package or by looking up your specific variety on the Internet.
You can also purchase sprouting kits, but the label of one sprouting jar at a local health-food store revealed that it had been shipped from California, so if you want to do it in true locavore spirit, save yourself some money and cover an empty jar with cheesecloth or something that will let the water drain and get rolling!
Here are some other tips as you embark on your germination journey:
If you miss a rinsing, don’t fret, just continue normally if the sprouts show no signs of mold. If you do see a spot of mold or rot, remove it with a bit of healthy sprouts and discard.
Taste the sprouts as you go along and harvest them as you please; some get crunchier with age, so experiment.
To green up your sprouts, once they’re done, leave them without a cover for a few hours in indirect sunlight. Most seem to grow best between 65-75 degrees, and room-temperature water is fine for rinsing, but cold or slightly warm water won’t hurt them.
Drain the sprouts well before you refrigerate them, and consume them within days of harvest for maximum enjoyment.
Most importantly, share them with friends and neighbors (or better yet, with strangers). Who wouldn’t appreciate some fresh, local, love-filled delicacies in the middle of winter?
• Sandwiches: Sprouts are a delicious addition to any sandwich.
• Salads: Add fresh sprouts to just about any salad.
• Breads: A half-cup of sprouts per loaf makes a nutritious addition to homemade breads (add with the liquids and send me a slice).
• Soups: A few sprouts added just before serving add great texture.