Last winter, in the middle of March, my friend Kris came to dinner. I remember this, because the hostess gift she brought changed my life. After everyone made it in the door and the rigamarole of coats, boots, and cold hugs had subsided, Kris came into the kitchen and set down a plate. I pulled back the covering and was greeted with several perky shades of green. GREEN. IN MARCH. Kris had brought me, of all things, a plate of sprouts.
As an (almost) lifelong vegetarian, I’ve always thought I should be more of a sprout fanatic. I mean they are quintessential vegetarian food, right? Maybe. But in all honesty, a plastic carton of alfalfa sprouts does absolutely nothing for me. Nor a bag of yellowing mung bean sprouts. Too often their mineral taste and chalky texture overpowers everything else, leaving a disparaging taste in my mouth.
But right away I could tell there was something different about Kris’s sprouts. For starters, they were so GREEN. And so FRESH. Kris gave me a quick run down. There were pea shoots, mung beans like I’d never seen, a spring mix with broccoli and spicy radish, crunchy lentils, and glorious pile of sunflower sprouts. I sampled a pinch of each and knew right then and there that my winter kitchen was going to be a different place.
I do my best to eat with the seasons, which means there are several months (too many really) where succulent leafy greens are more or less absent from the scene. Sometimes out of desperation I’ll let loose and bring home a bag of arugula or spinach, but besides that, cabbage is my leafy green stand in. So to know that I could replicate these flavor packed, crunchy green sprouts all winter long was almost more than I could handle.
I ruthlessly started quizzing Kris. Where does she get her seeds? (a Canadian company called Mumm’s) Do I need any special equipment? (canning jars, a few pieces of fine screen mesh, and maybe a aluminum pie tin) How long does it take? (2-7 days depending on the seeds and your preferences) How much maintenance is involved? (after an initial 4 hour soak, a good rinse twice a day). How long do they keep? (a week or so in the fridge). I could do this, I thought. And I did.
Confident that this was a kitchen habit that would stick, I placed a sizable order (with so many choices, it was hard to resist). I store a small jar of each variety in the pantry and restock from the freezer – where the seeds stay vaible for a good long time. I’ll put my sprouting supplies away for the summer months, but from November through June, look out. My kitchen counter comes to life!
I have become a full on sprout junkie. I enjoy them all, but two that always make the rotation are sunflower spouts (which I have a tendency to gulp down by the handful, often eating the entire tray before it even makes it into the fridge for storage) and mung beans. But unlike the long, slightly yellow, slightly slimy mung shoots I find at the grocery store, I now enjoy what seems like a completely different food – crunchy, petite, fresh, protein laden nuggets. The key with mung beans, I have learned, is to only sprout them for a few days, until just the start of a shoot appears. Lightly steaming at this stage unlocks a world of flavor and texture.
I eat sprouts plain with a pinch of crunchy salt whenever I’m in the mood for something raw and green. All winter long I deploy them as edible garnish on just about anything. I cook with them too – adding the larger beans to soups and pastas and reserving smaller leafier sprouts for sandwiches and omelets. And for a night of ultimate wintertime culinary fun, I toss as many varieties of sprouts as I can together for a crazy, crunchy, flavor-packed salad. Whoowhee!
But in keeping with my quiet Scandinavian stoic roots, I often take it down a notch and opt for a more subtle, steamed mung bean salad. The toppings vary, but the result is perfectly satiating. It is, hands down, one of my favorite winter salads.
Mung Bean Salad for 2 (or 1 if it’s the dead of winter)
2 large handfuls of fresh mung bean sprouts, steamed in a small amount of water for just under a minute. They should be green and toothsome.
Drain and divide among 2 small plates.
Top with any or all of the following:
a dash of oil (olive and/or toasted sesame oil)
a dash of rice vinegar
a dash of soy sauce
(or mix all of the above together with some fresh garlic and ginger for a simple Asian inspired dressing)
toasted sesame seeds
crunchy, coarse salt
* A note on sunflower seed spouts – you can sprout them in a jar like all other seeds, but Kris turned me on to using a disposable pie tin with small holes poked throughout the bottom. The seed hulls fall away to the bottom of the tin and the sprouts grow more upright, making them easier to harvest.