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Sprouting: The Winter Garden
When the price of head lettuce climbs to $2.50 or more per head and the frigid arctic winds are rattling the windows, you can still enjoy freshly grown produce. And, you don't even have to leave your home. It doesn't require long-range transportation from warmer or tropical climes nor energy-intensive greenhouses. What is this wonder? One that has been around for thousands of years: sprouting -- the growing of edible plants from seed.
Sprouting begins with seeds and beans. The most commonly known sprouts are mung bean, the staple of Chinese cuisine, and alfalfa sprouts, a fixture in most salad bars. However, several other sprouts have come into the kitchen in recent years, notably radish, lentil, soybean, peas, fenugreek and red clover. Less common are cabbage, garbanzo beans, mustard, onion, dill, garlic, pumpkin, quinoa, kale, sunflower, and adzuki, kidney, pinto and navy beans. One source of seeds advertises that they sell over 40 varieties of seeds and seed mixtures for home sprouting. Almost any seed may be sprouted and eaten, but avoid seeds from plants which have poisonous parts. Sprouting of most seeds does not require soil or a large area, although some grass grains can produce chlorophyll-rich crops in a small pan of soil.
Home sprouting can supply a delicious, varied fresh harvest quickly and inexpensively without the environmental disadvantages of commercial agriculture and shipping. Sprouts are easily grown and easily digested, and contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals as well as simple sugars and amino acids.
Why not just eat the seeds and eliminate the bother of sprouting? Well, besides the varieties of tastes and textures that brighten the spirit when eating sprouts, several biochemical changes occur as the seed germinates. While the content of vitamins and minerals varies with the seed type, it is known in general that sprouting changes the carbohydrate and protein content of the seed to more easily digestible forms: some complex carbohydrates become simple sugars; some proteins break down to amino acids. Vitamin content also changes. For example, folic acid, an important B vitamin, increases three-fold during sprouting. Vitamin C is produced as well, usually reaching a maximum during the second day of germination.
The Sprouting Process
Home production of sprouts takes only a few minutes per day and can be done in the kitchen or any other warm space in the house. The amount of space will, of course, vary depending on how many different varieties you wish to sprout and what quantity you wish to produce. As a basic example, a quantity of alfalfa sprouts equivalent to the containers sold in the supermarkets can be grown in the space required to lay a quart jar on its side. Certain grains can be grown in soil filled tray which would require a little more space, but we will get to that method later. First, let us lay the foundation for preparing regular batches of basic sprouts.
To start sprouting, you need a container in which to germinate the seeds. I can think of a whole variety of possible sprout farms which one could use depending on space availability and quantity of sprouts desired. The simplest to obtain is a quart or litre container. I prefer and recommend glass containers over metal or plastic because of the potential for leaching unwanted chemicals into the sprouts from metal or plastic. The container can be a canning jar or a large glass food jar such as a pickle jar. I have always used a glass jar. However, a product I saw on the Internet called the flax sprout bag looks like an interesting alternative. It is like a large tea bag made of flax fibres and offers good drainage and aeration for the sprouts. Whatever the choice, the important criteria are good aeration and drainage without allowing the sprouts to dry-up. The secret to good sprout growing is keeping enough moisture for germination without drowning the seedlings or allowing mould to develop.
With the jar, you need some form of lid. This must be an open lid, one that will allow air to move into the jar and heat, waste gases and water to leave the jar. A porous fibre screen, netting such as cheesecloth or fibreglass screening held in place with a rubberband or string works well. Many years ago I purchased a trio of plastic lids which each had a different mesh size for different size sprouts. These lids allow you to add and drain the water without risking lose of germinating sprouts. Punching a number of holes (minimum 8 to 10) into the jar's original lid will work as a fine alternative, especially for large seeds.
Finally, you need something to hold the sprouting jar propped at an angle. I have used a cake or loaf pan. A large flower pot also will work. If you are doing several batches simultaneously, a dish drainer is a great choice. The criteria are that the jar must be held in a near vertical position (45 to 60 degrees) without cutting water drainage and air flow from the sprouting jar. Many sprouts do not like to be crushed by their neighbours so an angle of about 45 degrees seems to allow good drainage while keeping the sprouts more uniformly distributed along the jar rather than clumped at the bottom. Mung beans seem to be an exception to this rule; they produce the best sprouts when under some pressure.
Where should you place your sprout farm? Almost anywhere will do within these guidelines:
Water is the next important ingredient. While the process does not demand special water, I would recommend that water at room temperature be used so as not to shock the germinating sprouts. If the weather is very hot, cooler water may help produce good germination. A good idea would be to leave a pitcher or bottle of tap water in some convenient spot, uncapped overnight. This will allow chlorine added to the water supply to escape as a gas from the water.
Finally, you need the seeds you intend to sprout. Seeds can be purchased at health food or other food stores. Do not use seeds intended for planting. Unless you are certain they are untreated seeds such as those grown in your own organic garden or by certified organic sources, seeds for planting maybe coated with biocides, fungicides, growth stimulators or fertilizers. When buying seeds, buying in bulk may not be the wisest idea initially. If you do not use them in a reasonable time, the percentage of seeds which will germinate may decrease. Often, people are discouraged from growing sprouts because their seeds did not germinate as expected. Most often this happens when the seeds are too old. (Most seeds remain viable for a year or more if stored in a cool, dry spot.) We usually do not know how old the seeds are when we buy them. Therefore, I recommend purchasing a small quantity at first until you decide how often you will grow a batch and what quantity you will need in each batch.
To give you an idea of how much seed is needed, to prepare a quart jar of alfalfa sprouts requires two tablespoons of seeds and should keep two adults in sprouts for about a week. Thus, 500g (about 1 lb) of alfalfa seeds yields about 20 quarts (litres) or more of sprouts. A quarter cup of beans will also yield about a quart of sprouts. If you wish to change varieties of sprouts frequently, you will not need many seeds of each variety to keep you in fresh produce all winter.
Once you have chosen your seeds from among the many available varieties, sprouting requires the following procedure:
Place the required quantity in the sprouting jar, bag or tray, removing any discoloured or damaged seeds.
Rule of thumb for various types of seeds: 1-2 tablespoon for small seeds and ¼ cup (60 ml) for large seeds or beans per litre (quart) of jar.
Add water to cover, swirl around for a few seconds and drain. Add room temperature water to cover and soak 4-8 hours. (If the weather or room is especially warm, add cool water.) Drain covering water and place growing jar at angle so that excess water drains off.
Once or twice each day, refill the jar with water, swirl around and drain well. Return to draining position.
After about 3 to 6 days, the sprouts should have grown to a length of 3 to 5 cm (1-2 inches). At this time they should be ready to eat. You may wish to use the taste test for time of harvest rather than go by number of days. After 2 days, taste a few, if they are good, they are done. If not, try again the next day.
If you want to promote the chlorophyll content of your sprouts, place them in a bright light (not direct sun) for several hours after the second day.
When the sprouts look about 2 to 5 cm (1-2 inches) in length or taste done, it its time to store your crop. Lentil and pea sprouts are best when they are small, about 0.5 to 1 cm (¼ to ½ inch) long. They get tougher when they grow larger.
Give the sprouts a good rise to remove any hulls, seed coats, etc. Drain well, checking to see if any mold is present or there are any discoloured or slimy sprouts. Discard these. Your sprouts are now ready to store and eat.
To store, place in dry, covered container or plastic bag in the refrigerator. Delicate varieties such as alfalfa sprouts should be stored in a ventilated container. All sprouts are best when used within four days of harvest.
If you wish to grow mung beans for Chinese-style bean sprouts, the preferred procedure is slightly different. (The above method can also provides good results, however.). These beans grow best in a drainable tray or basket with extra rinsings and minimal disturbance rather than the rinse, swirl and drain technique. They should also be grown completely in the dark to prevent bitterness. Some sprouters also suggest that extra weight will help form short, plump sprouts.
Chinese masters grow mung beans by placing a wet, absorbent towel over the top of the sprouting tray. They re-soak the cloth two or three times per day allowing the water to drain out the bottom of the tray. Some place a sandbag over the towel to make them shorter and plumper.
An alternative to the jar/water method of growing sprouts requires a bed of soil. Soil sprouting works best to produce lettuce-like greens from buckwheat, peas, sunflower or chlorophyll-rich wheat, rye, oat and barley. The procedure:
First fill pots, trays or containers which allow bottom drainage about half full with soil, compost or an organic potting mix. Be sure that the soil does not contain any artificial fertilizers, chemicals or herbicides.
Soak the seeds for 8 hours for wheat seeds and for 12-18 hours for hard-shelled seeds like sunflowers.
Drain and spread on the soil surface. Do not plant in the soil. Water well and cover with plastic or clean newsprint. Leave some open space for soil ventilation.
Uncover after three days and place the containers in sun light or bright light for 5-8 days keeping soil moist.
When the crop is 12-15cm (5-6 inches) tall, cut as needed, but before plants become too old and tough. Wheat and other grasses may be left for a smaller second crop, but buckwheat, peas and sunflowers may be cut only once.
Sprouts eaten raw will liven any salad or sandwich. Use them to replace lettuce and other similar greens in recipes. Heavier sprouts such as bean sprouts can be stir-fried into a dish, but be sure to add them last, cooking for about 30 seconds. Cooking bean sprouts too long destroys their crispness, turning them into a soggy consistency. (As a kid, I had only eaten limp sprouts from canned Chinese foods, but once I tasted them properly cooked: wow, what a difference!) I understand that sprouts added to homemade bread dough before baking makes a tasty, nutritious addition. Add half a cup of sprouts per loaf.
My favorite use of sprouts, outside of a stir-fry, is to place a small pile on a large, toasted piece of dark-grain bread and melt some cheese over the sprouts. A little salt/pepper or other favorite seasoning mix tops off the open-faced sandwich.
Finally, some remarks on the flavour and usage of several of the most common types of sprouts.
That is all there is to growing fresh produce in your home during the winter. Some of you may have heard of the bad Christmas/New Year's storms here on the Pacific Coast. One of the major concerns for people was having or obtaining food because they could not get to grocery stores. If they were regular sprouters, they would have had ample reserves of nutritious food. I remind our Eastern friends of this before they face the next blizzard.
Sprouts contain the energy of life and growth. They are new life awakening. Sprouts are the gift of god and nature -- the promise of new life. Grow them, eat them and, above all, enjoy them.
Sprouting: The Winter Garden by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1997, All Rights Reserved.
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