Friday, December 4, 2009

Bean sprouts

Any book of of winter gardening projects usually dedicates a page or two to home-grown sprouts. Sprouting seeds at home is more than a winter pastime, and you hardly need the excuse of snow on the ground or a case of January gardener's malaise to break out the mung beans. They taste better then store-bought and they are cheaper. At nearby supermarkets, a small bag of limp, watery sprouts will set you back at least 2 dollars! At nearby Asian markets, there are bins of cheaper sprouts, but I lately have also begun to question the healthfulness of any store-purchased sprouts. These little guys are a set-up for food borne-illness: moist environment, balmy room temperature air, and every shopper digging into the bin. The dregs at the bottom look like an E. coli dream. To my growing chagrin, stories of salmonella contamination on sprouts have been surfacing in the national media every few months. All this is to say that home-grown sprouts are the way to go.

The one drawback of sprouting at home is that it requires some advanced planning. If you want Vietnamese spring rolls or vegetable pad thai this very night, you will have to forgo sprouts. Occasionally, I substitute julienned cucumber or carrots, but neither matches the crisp texture of mung bean sprouts. With a few days of forethought you can have a bowlful of juicy bean sprouts, all for a few cents and free of diarrhea-inducing pathogens.

I buy my mung beans in bulk from the local Korean food emporium. I also notice that the seed companies sell bags of organic sprouting seeds, albeit at a much higher price, and I'm sure the local health food stores sell them as well. I do not know if these mung beans hail from Asia or if they are locally-grown....for more committed locavores, this is a topic that needs investigating. Soak a handful of the seeds in a bowl of cool water over night. In the morning, drain the seeds and put them back in the bowl. Here, I should note that books, the Internet and Youtube all give instructions for purchased or homemade sprouting contraptions involving screens and cheesecloth. I have had excellent results just using a bowl, and suggest that you save your time and money and do the same. If you want the thick sprouts you see at the store, you will need to weigh down the sprouts with a bowl of water or weighted dinner plate. If you don't mind skinnier sprouts, then just cover the whole bowl with a cloth. Every morning and night, rinse the beans, drain them and then cover them up again. In four or five days, you will have a giant bowl of sprouts.

The mung beans I sprout still have their green skins -- if you want to be rid of them, submerge your sprouts in a big bowl of water and agitate. The skins will rise to the top and you can skim them off. I have stopped caring about this, but if you want them to look the "right" way, go for it. After that, dry the sprouts really well (a salad spinner is the easiest method) and then stick them in the fridge. You will have crisp, fresh sprouts for days -- easy to toss into any stir-fry or Asian noodle dish. Their light juicy taste is a welcome addition to dinner, especially if one has been eating seasonally and consuming mostly cold-weather brassicas, greens and root vegetables.

The world of sprouts extends well beyond mung beans, but I am just not that big a fan of alfalfa sprouts on sandwiches and other such California-cuisine flourishes. If you are interested, I highly suggest perusing the Youtube videos on home sprouting. There are some hilariously earnest instructional videos, touting the health-giving benefits of all sorts of home sprouts. These videos usually feature people that look like they have sprung straight from a 70's commune, Birkenstocks and all. Bust out the macrame materials, the Moosewood Cookbook, and have yourself a retro sprouting afternoon.

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