Nancy Krcek Allen

Nancy Krcek Allen

Fifty years ago I began baking whole wheat bread, avoiding meat and dining daily on vegetables, seitan, oat and buckwheat groats, brown rice, miso, tofu, beans and sprouts.

My diet has changed, but I remain transformed by those early years: I have developed a passion for anything vegetable.

When I crave fresh green things and the weather is fickle, I haul out my half gallon Ball jar, hunt for the sprouting lid and start a batch of sprouts.

In the 1960s hippies began a long, slow transformation of American cuisine. Cookbooks like “Moosewood Cookbook,” “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest,” “Laurel’s Kitchen,” “The Vegetarian Epicure,” “Diet for a Small Planet,” “The Book of Tofu,” and “Tassajara Cooking” became maps to our counterculture cuisine. They remain a large influence on modern American cuisine: they have taught us how to prepare and value real food.

Long the domain of hippies and health freaks, sprouts have found a devoted following with a younger generation of homecooks. After decades of jokes and hostility, what began as a hippie rebellion has gained wide acceptance; and so sprouts have shed their activist persona. The mainstream has embraced them in salad bars, atop sandwiches and wraps and in Buddha bowls.

Sprouts are delightfully easy and inexpensive to grow indoors, requiring little space or time, no dirt, just clean water, no special equipment except a glass canning jar and a sprouting lid or cheesecloth. Sprouting legumes, grains and seeds multiplies nutritional benefits and breaks down plant anti-nutrients like phytates, which renders them sweeter and easier to digest.

Though I love sprouts, as soon as spring arrives I switch to growing microgreens. Microgreens grow in shallow, food-safe plastic trays filled with an inch or so of organic dirt. The extra nutrients from dirt help microgreens to grow taller, sturdier and greener than sprouts. Broccoli, sunflower and peas are my microgreen favorites, full of flavor and nutrition. Broccoli microgreens can have 50 times more anti-cancer phytochemical sulforaphane than broccoli.

Second only to sprouts, microgreens are the quickest food crop home gardeners can grow. Purchase a few food-safe plastic growing trays (with drain holes), organic dirt and organic sprouting seeds and you’re on your way. Sow the seeds and in around a week, depending on temperature and sun, the microgreens will flourish.

Most seeds, grains and legumes may be sprouted. Purchase raw, whole seeds specifically for sprouting to ensure they are toxin-free. Avoid kidney beans, they contain a natural toxin that only cooking will deactivate. Flax, chia and hemp are hard to sprout because they tend to gel when wet. Choose seeds like sunflower, alfalfa, radish, daikon radish, beet, chard, cabbage, arugula, cilantro, parsley, sesame and kale. Try grains like brown rice, buckwheat or oat groats, wheatberries, millet or wild rice and legumes like chickpeas, peas, lentils, adzuki and mung beans.

Professional chefs have embraced microgreens as fancy garnish on salad, stew, soup, grilled meat and seafood. The locavore in you will love sprouts and microgreens as a tasty, nutrient dense and sustainable food source. Beware of sprouts and microgreens though … they might lead you into a defiant rejection of processed, prepackaged foods and into the arms of a fresher, greener counter culture.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Sprouting Tips

Step 1: Purchase a wide mouth sprouting lid or remove metal middle insert of wide mouth metal canning band and cut a piece of cheesecloth to fit over wide mouth opening of clean half gallon canning jar. Wash your hands. Fill 1/4 to 1/3 of the jar with grains or legumes or fill with 2 to 3 tablespoons seeds. Thoroughly wash and drain seeds, grains or legumes.

Step 2: Cover your chosen seed, grain or legume with 2 to 4 cups room temperature filtered water. Screw on sprouting lid or metal band with cheesecloth in place. Soak 6 to 8 hours.

Step 3: Drain and rinse contents well, drain again. Turn the jar so as many seeds as possible spread out and stick to the side of the jar. Set on a plate on kitchen counter. Invert jar and lay at an angle so that air circulates and water drains. Repeat this twice daily.

Step 4: Watch and wait. Within a day or two sprouts will emerge and in 4 to 7 days they will be ready to eat. Depending on seed, grain or legume, sprouts vary from 1/2-inch to 2-inches long. Rinse finished sprouts well, drain well then spread on cotton towel to air dry 30 minutes. Store lightly wrapped in cheesecloth or paper towel, refrigerated in a container, 3 to 7 or more days.

Growing Microgreens

Tender baby microgreens are a high quality, biogenic (life-generating) fast food. They taste best when they have grown their first two true leaves (that develop after the seed leaves). If they grow too large, leaves will develop a stronger flavor. If you use organic sprouting seeds that have not been treated with chemicals or fungicides, organic soil, and rinse microgreens after harvesting there is no need to fear contamination.

Step 1: To help seeds germinate quickly, pre-soak larger seeds (mung beans, wheat, peas, beet and sunflower) in warm water for a few hours or overnight. After presoaking, drain and rinse large seeds. No need for this step with smaller seeds.

Step 2: Prepare a 21-inches-by-10-3/4-inches-by-1-1/4-inch food-safe plastic microgreen growing tray with holes: Lay moistened paper towel on the bottom to stop the mix falling through. Fill container 3/4 full of moist organic microgreen dirt mix about 1 inch deep and spread out evenly. The dirt should feel like a moist sponge, not clumpy, wet or dry.

Step 3: Seedlings need adequate air circulation, water, light and drainage. Generously sprinkle seeds evenly, in one layer, over the mix and press in lightly. Avoid scattering them on top of each other. You may spread a thin layer of soil or sieved compost over the top. Lightly water with a spray bottle. This prevents dislodging seeds. To create a warm humid environment for the seeds to germinate, cover the tray with a second plastic microgreen tray, and place in a warm, dark spot until sprouts emerge/germinate, 1 to 3 days.

Step 4: Remove cover and transfer tray to a sheltered, sunny position like a windowsill, deck or greenhouse. Too much heat and sun will fry young seedlings. Water tray regularly every day, as needed. Check soil moisture with fingers. The seeds should never dry out, but avoid overwatering.

Step 5: Harvest microgreens (as you need them) when seedlings are 1 to 3 inches tall, depending on what you’re growing.

Just before you’ll use them, cut stems just above the soil with small, sharp scissors. Rinse well in a strainer and pat dry. As their roots develop, microgreens form a mat in the soil.

After you harvest the microgreens completely, compost the soil/growing medium. Always start your trays with fresh soil.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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