Growing sprouts isn’t picturesque, but farming the kitchen counter does provide an inexpensive source of fresh produce. That’s especially welcome in winter, when supermarket lettuces are a couple of bucks a head. Or more.
Bean sprouts are a familiar staple of Asian dishes, but that only hints of their culinary potential. Sprout gourmands offer a wide range of recipes -- soups, appetizers, and salads to breads and entrées.
Hunan Mung Beans in Outrageous Dressing, which comes from Henry’s Hunan Restaurant in San Francisco, has 15 ingredients, which is truly outrageous, but it’s also outrageously good. OMG, as Tweeters like to say.
Plenty of choices
And mung beans are only the beginning. Other candidates for sprouting? Alfalfa, radish, fenugreek, clover, onion, buckwheat, lentil, broccoli, mustard, garden peas, garbanzo, cress, cabbage, soybean, sunflower, and more.
Whatever the crop, make sure that seeds are untreated and have tested negative for bacteria like salmonella. That means you probably shouldn’t use seeds left over from last summer’s garden.
Seeds specifically for sprouting are available at many organic food stores and from online merchants. By far the best site is Sprout People. Beans, grains, grasses, brassicas, nuts, exotics, it has them all — plus meticulous instructions on how to sprout each crop.
It’s also a first-class source of general information about sprouting and is stocked with all the equipment thingamabobs you might — or might not — need.
Most serious counter-top sprouters settle the what-to-sprout quandary by growing several crops at the same time. Deciding what to sprout in is also a dilemma for beginners.
After trying all sorts of sprouters, from multitiered containers to trays to hemp bags, I’ve come back to where I began: a wide-mouth canning jar with a piece of screen mesh and a jar ring to keep it in place. Cheap, easy to clean, and takes up little counter space.
If you don’t have a bit of mesh and a ring — you can buy them from Sprout People — leave the jar top open. (Sprouts need good air circulation, so don’t seal the jar with a lid.)
If your high-tech leanings aren’t fulfilled by a canning jar, buy an Easy Sprout Sprouter. The directions in the package are a little vague, but the online directions and video are excellent.
Believe it or not, the health value of sprouts is controversial, probably because some disciples have made outrageous claims that can’t be substantiated. Who wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at “Wisdom Blend” (fenugreek, lentils, kamut wheat, Adzuki beans), which promises that the buyer will “become as wise as the ancient ones.”
However, it’s accurate to say that sprouts are good for you. Amounts differ, but all contain protein, vitamins, and minerals, but no fat and few calories. “Wonder food” may be an overstatement — you’d have to eat immense quantities to get a day’s worth of protein or any vitamin — but sprouts merit a place on all nutrition-conscious dinner plates.
Coming soon: Part II, How to sprout seeds
Karan Davis Cutler blogs regularly at Diggin’ It. She's a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist and the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vt., on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. To read more by Karan, click here.