When I met Debrilla Ratchford, she was selling sprouts at a farmers market in the parking lot of Albuquerque's University Hospital. A former flight attendant, Ratchford holds the first patent on rolling airport luggage. Few could deny that patent No. 4,094,391 has made their lives easier. And she hopes to make an even greater impact with her new occupation.
Most of today's health problems, including so-called diseases of civilization like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, are diet-related, and the farmers market where I met Ratchford was purposefully set up so that hospital patients, visitors and employees would have to walk through it on their way in. Legions of fat, sick people waddled and wheeled past Ratchford's stand en route to expensive medical interventions for problems they could have avoided by eating fewer corn dogs and more veggies.
I bought a bag of Ratchford's "seven bean sprout mix," which includes mung, adzuki and soy beans, four types of lentils, and wheat berries. Lightly salted, they were al-dente and earthy, with a vibrancy I normally associate with sushi and raw oysters.
Local produce can be hard to find in winter. Gardens die, farmers markets close, local growers hibernate and local food snobs are forced to choose between their principles and bodily needs. But it doesn't need to come to this. Fresh produce is available from sprouted seeds any time of year, and it's as local as your kitchen sink.
Dormant seeds are equipped with the energy supplies and building blocks they need in order to grow to the point where they can get what they need from the sun, air and soil. These nutrients can be locked in forms that are difficult for the human body to digest. When dormant seeds absorb water, their metabolic activity increases. Complex proteins, starches and lipids are broken down into simple compounds that are easier for baby plants and humans alike to digest. Vitamins, chlorophyll and other nutrients are synthesized, while phytates are neutralized. Phytates, which are present in lentils and grains, inhibit nutrient absorption.
Different sprouts offer different benefits. Bean and alfalfa sprouts are especially high in protein; adzuki bean sprouts contain every amino acid but tryptophan. Alfalfa sprouts are high in chlorophyll and minerals. Sunflower sprouts are a good source of omega-6 fatty acids.
Broccoli sprouts contain practically everything good but winning lottery tickets, including sulforaphane, which acts on DNA to stimulate production of certain enzymes. This action has been shown to fight cancer in humans, and research suggests that it's good for the heart, brain, lungs, prostate and other organs.
Enzyme activity is one of the main characteristics of living foods. Since enzymes start dying at 120 degrees, living foods are by definition raw. But living food means not that the whole organism is alive, only that biological activity continues. After a lettuce plant is plucked for salad, the organism as a whole might be dead, but leaf cells are still alive. If you expose those leaves to carbon dioxide and light, they'll spit out oxygen. Sprouts take the concept of living food to the extreme, because the entire organism is alive when you eat it.
"When you eat a sprout, it's one living being communicating with another," explained Ratchford. "When you eat a cooked food, it's dead. There's no communication."
Sprouts don't require fancy gear to grow. Simply soak seeds overnight in plenty of water. Within minutes of submersion, little bubbles of waste gas start streaming toward the surface. In the morning, drain and rinse the seeds and keep them loosely covered in a dark place, rinsing three or four times daily. A colander works for large seeds, like Ratchford's mix, allowing for easy rinsing under the tap. Cover the sprouting seeds with a damp towel between rinses. Bean sprouts are ready when white shoots are just emerging from the bean seeds. Sometimes the shoots wrap around the beans, making them look like sperm doing yoga.
Split lentils and peas won't sprout, because the seeds are broken. Whole lentils and peas, as well as most other seeds you might sprout, are available from websites like sunfood.com and sprouthouse.com, and sometimes your local bulk bin. While bulk bins are inexpensive and convenient, specialized sprout seed sellers test for diseases like E. coli, which caused a recent deadly sprout-borne outbreak in Europe. Ideal conditions for sprouting also tend to favor bacterial growth, which is why clean seed and frequent rinsing with clean water are important, and why the young, old, pregnant and people with weakened immune systems are advised not to eat sprouts. Those same hi-risk groups are also advised against eating sunny side up eggs.
A finished sprout is a miniature plant, complete with roots, stem and leaves. If you're growing your sprouts at home, especially leafy sprouts like alfalfa, radish, broccoli and clover, you might want to finish the job with a few hours of sunlight to encourage the little plants to synthesize some green chlorophyll for your aesthetic and anti-oxidative pleasure.
Because the metabolism of sprouting begins as soon as water is absorbed by the seeds, it isn't necessary to finish full sprouts before enjoying the benefits. Soaking beans or lentils before cooking not only reduces their cook time, it also makes them more nutritious—even if they get cooked long before they sprout. Along these lines, Sprouthouse.com has several sprout mixes designed to be soaked overnight and eaten for breakfast, like cereal, the next morning.
Fully sprouted seeds can be cooked as well. And while they lose some of their live enzymes, cooked sprouts are still good food. The Vietnamese beef soup called Pho is usually served with a pile of mung bean sprouts, which are added to the hot soup at mealtime, while the Thai noodle dish Pad Thai incorporates a mountain of stir-fried mung bean sprouts.
So before you fork over your hard-earned green for that jetlagged California chlorophyll, remember, you have options. Sprouts, even partially sprouted sprouts, are the locavore's secret weapon of winter. And all you have to do is add water.