Food of the Week - Sprouts
sponsored by Coleman Farms
When I was little, I discovered Chinese food was based on worms. There were crisp worms and soft ones; the crisp ones were pretty good, except they got soon soggy, while the soft ones were reliably good, whether lightly cooked and that bit crunchy or, more often, cooked really soft. And so, I came to know fried noodles and bean sprouts. It was not until some time later that I heard 'sprouts' on its own, no longer wed to 'bean': when the same wave of societal change that invigorated the cotton clothing industry and washed Birkenstocks up on our shores seems to have also flushed the notion of eating sprouted seeds from the peripheral shops and cafes frequented by 'health food' people and brought them onto the public table. Suddenly 'sprouts' was on all tongues, and no longer the white, wormy bean sprouts but, usually, the hairy tangle of silver tipped with green that are alfalfa sprouts, eaten quite raw in sandwiches or salads and tasting of freshly mown sports field.
Personally, I preferred both the contextual associations and the eating qualities of the worms, but Occidental sprouts have stayed mainstream, and since entering it have come to represent about a couple of dozen popular species of grains, beans and vegetables. As a result, you can choose salady sprouts from the relatively bland (mung) bean sprout or grassy alfalfa to the tangy mustard and radish, and among the more substantial 'main course' sprouts you'll find the relatively oily sunflower seed and a variety of just-sprouted legumes, including black-eyed, green and chick peas, lentils and several kinds of bean.
Why sprouts, when you could just toast or boil the seeds and have done with it? Alfalfa seeds, for one, are so small I'm not sure how they'd be used, apart from decoration, like poppy seeds (which also have other uses, so maybe alfalfa seed cake?). And there's still some element of social differentiation involved: eating sprouts is a way to show you're 'health conscious', the same way as driving certain kinds of cars is. Juiced wheat grass 'shots' are a particular manifestation of this. But there are other reasons that are more interesting.
Sprouting seeds requires very little room and can be done anywhere humans are likely to be comfortable in shirtsleeves, it doesn't even require light. So it can be done, as this article points out, in a cellar, or in a dreary Winter-besieged inner city, providing a fresh veg equivalent for people whose native produce, such as it is in Winter, is unavailable because it's frozen hard in the field, and one for whom, in any case, salad stuff is either five months or several thousand miles away.
There's also the matter of nutrition. The seeds we commonly eat - one thinks mainly of grains, beans and nuts, are neat little packages of mostly inert carbohydrates, proteins and oils, and a tiny bit of life - a set of plans and the means and motive to execute them. Moisture and warmth sets this little factory going and the seed sprouts. Sprouting is the result of changing the inert material into living matter, which in turn depends on lots of enzymes, hormones, and things having been made according to the seeds' set of plans. Many of these enzymes are vitamins recognized as necessary for human health, while other 'phytochemicals' created in the sprouting seed are increasingly claimed to be important in various ways in the human diet.
All of these chemicals are present in sprouted seeds in much greater amounts than in the unactivated seed, if they are present there at all. The figures for the amount of some well understood vitamins contained in sprouts can be impressive, particularly for vitamins A (or its precursor), C and E.
If you think 'sprouts' you probably also think 'raw'. Certain raw sprouts pop up frequently in sandwiches and salads and are familiar to vegetable juicers both for their flavor and their nutritional values. Some raw sprouts are surprizingly useful: radish sprouts, for example, are a very satisfactory substitute for watercress, in texture, flavor and appearance. With a few exceptions, you can eat the commonly available sprouts raw, using them in salad or sandwiches or among the crudités. Anyone who can handle raw cauliflower can probably manage sprouted chick peas, but the argument can be made, in each case, that they're nicer cooked: the flavor is more developed, the mouth feel is more pleasant, they're easier to digest (meaning possibly the usual, and definitely that the nutrients are more accessible), so think of the slightly-sprouted legumes as something to cook.
Since they're edible raw, you haven't to cook them much, which will give you a fairly nutty texture and a flavor with elements of a hard cheese; cook them more and they approach your standard cooked dry bean, though the sprouts can be well-cooked and still not achieve the floury texture reached by dried beans, resulting in their bean flavor being kept localized and concentrated, and so being something like nuts. This works well in vegetable stirfry, but also in omelet or fritatta. Sprouted beans require no soaking, and they're a handy way to bulk up a soup or stew, adding vegetable flavor and texture and a lot of protein. Steam or stir fry sprouted mixed legumes (and, why not?, grains) together with sliced peppers to make a base burrito filling that's quick and light.
Image from Plant Health Progress article:
Recent Trends in Microbiological Safety of Fruits and Vegetables