I have a terrible confession – I am a lazy cook. I rarely have the time, energy or motivation to make big, elaborate meals. I get bored half-way through recipes and tend to do my own thing, adding my own ingredients, not always with successful results! My favourite kinds of food are the ones which take under 15 minutes to prepare. So I can really understand why convenience foods have become so popular. Luckily I have found that quick meals do not necessarily have to be unhealthy.
One of the best discoveries I have made during my research on food has been sprouts. Sprouts take a few days to make themselves but once they are grown you can eat them raw or add them during cooking. They have a wonderful, fresh, flavour and crunchy texture. You can just taste the nutrients bursting out of them. They can also be stored in the fridge for up to a week so you don’t need to make them too often.
What is a sprout?
A sprout is basically a germinated seed and can be made with seeds from most plants which we normally eat. Seeds contain all of the substances necessary for growth of the new plant which is why they are so nutritious providing most of the world’s food. Most staple foods are cereals (maize, wheat, rice, millet and sorghum) and many cultures depend on pulses (beans, peas and lentils) as a source of cheap, nutritious protein.
Sprouts are basically seeds which are eaten (raw or cooked) once they have begun to germinate. The germination process releases many of the nutrients and makes the seed more digestible reducing the cooking time.
Benefits of sprouts
As Clive McKay, Professor of Nutrition at Cornell University pointed out back in the 1940s, sprouts are an ideal food because they can: grow in any climate in any season; grow without soil or sunlight; mature in 3 to 5 days and will provide high levels of a wide range of nutrients (including protein, carbohydrate, vitamins C, A and B complex). No waste is created in sprout production and they can be eaten raw or cooked in less than a minute.
You can eat practically any germinated seed from an edible plant. The two notable exceptions are tomato and potato whose seeds and sprouts are poisonous. When making sprouts it is, of course, very important to use seed which has not been treated with pesticides.
Sprouting traditional crops
We think of sprouts as being part of Asian cuisine but in Zimbabwe millet and sorghum are commonly sprouted to make mahewu and traditional beer. You can sprout any of the traditional cereals or legumes and most vegetables. Sprouting legumes (such as cowpeas and roundnuts) gets rid of the unpleasant substances which cause gas and greatly reduces their cooking time (to about 10 minutes). Although sprouting reduces the protein content of legumes, it increases their vitamin content and makes them easier to digest. Cereals such as millet and sorghum have a surprisingly sweet flavour when sprouted. Other traditional seeds which are tasty when sprouted are sesame, pumpkin and melon.
You do not need any special equipment to sprout seeds. There are many different methods but this is one which I have found most effective.
- First soak the seeds in clean water. For small seeds this can be for an hour or two. For large seeds (such as beans) overnight is best. Nyimo beans (which are particularly hard) need to be soaked for 48 hours.
- After soaking wash the seeds and then spread them on a damp tea towel or a few layers of damp kitchen paper spread on a tray and kept in a dark aerated place. If it is the dry season you may need to cover the seeds with another damp kitchen towel/ kitchen paper. If it is the rainy season they need more air. Most seeds usually start sprouting after 24 hours and take 3-5 days to be ready for eating (depending on temperatures, time of year etc).
- It is important to check and wet the sprouts at least once per day during sprouting. This is best done by gently pouring them into a container and covering them in water for about a minute, then draining off the water and replacing them on their tray. If you notice any sprouts which are not germinating or which are being affected by mould, remove them immediately.
- Once the sprouts have reached the desired length you can use them. They can also be packed into plastic bags and kept in the fridge for up to a week.
Cooking with sprouts
So you have made your sprouts now what? Well depending on their size you can eat them raw in salads or just sprinkle them in to dishes which you are cooking. Sprouted cowpeas can be added to vegetable dishes, stews, soups and stir fries to add texture and flavour. One of my favourite ways to eat sprouts is in an omelette – a classic lazy cook’s meal. Check out our recipe section for some recipes using sprouts made with traditional foods.