..The Freshest Off-Season Vegetable:
(c) 2015, Davd
Unless you’re eating asparagus and fiddleheads, or are brave enough to cook young dandelion greens, early June is still winter in the average Canadian kitchen. In old fashioned farm culture, this time of year—spring outdoors but no fresh vegetables yet—was called the Hungry Gap. Today, it’s possible to go to a store and buy “fresh” vegetables trucked (more rarely, flown) in from far to the south where it’s been growing season for weeks already—but the prices?—the prices are a powerful incentive to grow your own.
I don’t recall vegetables costing half or more as much, per kilo, as meat, back in the 1960s when i began regularly cooking for myself. Today, vegetables like bell peppers, tomatoes, even cauliflower, can cost more than basic meat like pork chops, smoked pork shoulder, chicken, and the sale prices for round and “sirloin tip” beef roasts and steaks.
We have an incentive, gentlemen, to figure out ways to produce fresh vegetables earlier—preferably, all winter.
In the second blog in this series, i named the four staple Canadian winter vegetables: Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and turnips. (Perhaps i should also have named beets and parsnips. I like beets, but parsnips don’t really seem that much fun to eat—to me. If you enjoy them, don’t let me stop you.) Those are the vegetables that can be found, fairly often, for a dollar to $1.55 per kilo [45-70 cents per pound]… and usually half that price or less for potatoes, which are intermediate between a vegetable in the usual sense, and a “complex carbohydrate” food (most of which, in Canada, are grains: Barley, maize, rye, and wheat, especially. Potatoes contain much more water per weight than grains; and so, usually cost significantly less per kilo than grain.)
Life could get pretty dull if those were all there was to eat, though. No wonder people overheated their kitchens in July and August and September canning tomatoes and applesauce, beans and plums and relishes, pickling beets and cucumbers, and did all the work of making sauerkraut… back 50 years ago and earlier.
Today, spinach and tomatoes tend to be frozen rather than canned, at home; and to cost ten times what they cost when i started cooking, in stores; while fresh vegetables more tender than cabbage—meaning much more tender than roots—can cost as much as meat, and sometimes 50% to 100% more than meat.
Bell peppers were advertised this past winter for three dollars per pound—the same price i paid for a beef roast to bake in the oven the same month, and 60% more than the best price i paid this year—after the price of pork went up—for pork chops. Green and yellow snap beans were advertised for $2—$3+ per pound last summer—in season, yet. To get a fresh vegetable for just over one dollar per kilo—between 50 and 60 cents per pound—reliably all winter? Gentlemen, it’s worth a little bit of work, to have a fresh vegetable you can produce in a glass jar in your own kitchen for that cost.
Its name is mung bean sprouts. Its taste is a little like fresh snap beans in the summer, and refreshingly different from all the staple winter vegetables. Add it to cabbage or kale (or broccoli or cauliflower) a carrot cut fine, and some onion, and you have the usual vegetables for stir-frying with chicken, ham, unsmoked pork, even beef. You can make a simple sauce of vegetable oil, sugar, and soy sauce; and have steamed bean sprouts as a winter salad. You can substitute chive blossom vinegar for the soy in that salad dressing and have two kinds of bean sprout salad. You can eat hot steamed sprouts with a bit of soy or chive blossom vinegar, as a vegetable with almost any meal. And if you want a meatless meal that’s protein balanced—try stir-frying sprouts, cabbage or broccoli, and thin carrot strips, seasoned with soy sauce, and eating them with rice. Steamed sprouts with rice and soy sauce are also good… and barley is almost as good as rice with both.
(There are many other ways to eat them, i’m sure, in books you can find at the library. I make chive blossom vinegar, so i find that stir-frying, two salads, and occasionally the hot steamed form, are ways enough for me to use the bean sprouts i make.)
Mung beans are sold at most bulk food stores, by now. The “Bulk Barn” outlet in Miramichi sold them for $4.35 per kilo* this past winter, which is a little higher than the 2013 price. They are quite small, about the size of a ‘fat’ pinhead; and a dull olive-green colour that reminds me of military vehicles. I’ve never cooked them unsprouted; but once sprouted, they really diversify the off-season vegetable supply.
At $4.35 per kilo, i’d consider them an expensive vegetable—but that’s their price in dry form. In sprouted form, they cost a lot less.
Last October, i measured 100g of mung beans into a jar [with a mesh lid] and added water. Five days later, the sprouts weighed 375 grams (to the nearest 25) The beans had cost me $4.35 per kilo (ignoring the 10% Seniors’ and Student’s Discount, no sales tax because they are a foodstuff). Dividing 4.35 by 3.75 [the multiple by which the weight had increased], the cost of the sprouts, per kilo [not per pound!] worked out to $1.16—that’s about 53 cents per pound. I’ve seen even cabbage and turnips priced at a dollar and more per pound in big name grocery stores “off special.”
At $4.35 per kilo, then, mung beans can be made into sprouts that cost about the same price as cabbages and turnips “on special”, and less than one-fifth the price of those three dollar bell peppers. What’s more, you can make them when you want them, without driving anywhere to buy anything.
You start with a glass jar that has a perforated or mesh lid. I bought my first mesh lids, made to fit wide-mouth canning jars, at a yard sale; and later i actually found one near high tide line on a beach. If you don’t easily spot those lids to buy and your high tide line doesn’t have any, you can take any size lid—the larger the better up to “wide mouth”, i’d say—and perforate it with a drill or a nail. My guess is that the easiest way to proceed would be to put the metal lid, top side down, on a piece of scrap lumber, and drive a nail through it at least 20 times, scattering the holes about the surface of the lid with plenty of them near the edge all-’round. 40 holes probably wouldn’t be too many.
I’d use a 1-litre pickle jar probably, because i fairly often buy pickles on sale, and have several empty jars around the kitchen. Most one litre jars with fairly wide mouths will do. If the lid is made of plastic, drill holes through it rather than punching holes with a nail.
Put a half inch [1,3 cm] deep layer of dry mung beans in the bottom of the jar. Add enough warm water to cover them two or three times high—a couple inches [5 cm] of water seems about right for the first, long soak. Cover the jar with the perforated lid, put it somewhere they’ll stay warm but not get really hot, and leave them for 5-10 hours.
When the beans have soaked for 5-10 hours, drain them (the water that drains off is good for watering house plants—or the summer vegetable plants you’re starting in the sun porch, if it’s spring.) Let the jar drip until the drops come one second apart, or more slowly. (I air-dry dishes when i wash them, so i tend to put the jars of mung beans on that dish drying rack, to drain.) Then stand the jar right side up and let the beans have some air—at least half an hour of air time, as an estimate, and up to 12 hours. Then add warm water again, to definitely cover the beans, and this time, let them soak for 5-15 minutes; then drain them as before.
Ideally, water and drain the sprouting beans every hour or so, when you’re not in bed. As a minimum, water and drain at least twice a day—and between waterings, keep them warmish—18 to 25 or even 28, but below 30 Celsius, meaning about 65-80 Fahrenheit. Be sure they drain well, so that all the sprouting beans get air time as well as water time. When they’re under water, they soak up some of it; and then when they have air between them, they use some of that water, to grow.
How big to sprout them before you use them? That’s “a matter of taste”. I’d say let the rootlet that is forming from the bean, get to be at least half an inch, but not much more than an inch long. If the sprout starts forming bean leaves, that’s a little too far along—but they’ll still be usable. You can store bean sprouts in the ‘fridge for a few days (and they don’t need watering and draining while they’re fridged—in fact, it might hurt them. Beans like warm conditions for sprouting.)
What i usually do is begin cooking with my sprouts when the rootlets reach half to three-quarters of an inch long (1.3 to 2 cm). The main ways i use them are steamed until they brighten, and then used in a salad as described above, with grain [also as described above], or put raw into stir-fry mixtures (the sprouts are usually added to the wok or pan, last). Cook them until they brighten … and enjoy.
I’ve tried sprouting soybeans, because i read somewhere that they have a better protein content than mung beans—but they didn’t sprout well for me. Untreated alfalfa seeds will make good sprouts, but they are expensive and harder to find in stores; and the mesh of the lids for sprouting them must be quite fine, or the seeds will drain away with the water. Me, i stick with mung beans, which are more available, less expensive, and easier to handle.
The sprouts taste different than beets, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, turnips [or parsnips]—and in my ‘umble opinion, they taste good. They have a pleasant crunch but are easier to chew than cabbage or any root vegetable, Winter (and springtime) meals just won’t be as boring with bean sprouts added to your vegetable collection.
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* They posted that price as 44 cents per 100 grams, for the same reason grocers post meat and produce prices by the pound—because the smaller numbers apparently influence some shoppers to buy. I translate all prices by weight, into kilo prices, for clearer comparison.