I have always loved eating nuts and legumes, and they have become a staple in our diet ever since we've started to reduce the amount of meat we are eating. You can't imagine how distressed I was the first time I heard the idea that some of the foods I had considered super foods (foods like tomatoes and beans) were high in lectins- a compound classified as an "anti-nutrient"! For more on this theory and the science behind it, you might want to check out this book by Dr. Gundry: The Plant Paradox**
Without diving too deeply into the subject, here is the gist: Lectins in plants act as a defense mechanism to protect them from insects, fungi and pathogens. For foods we eat in the seed form (like grains and legumes), it's really a survival mechanism for the plant. You see, the seeds of certain plants produce compounds that are meant to inhibit digestion when consumed by an animal. This may be because a seed that passes through a digestive tract "unharmed" can still end up back in the soil and grow, or it may be because a food that causes digestive distress will be less appealing to the animal that has eaten it the next time the animal is foraging for food. Either way, anti-nutrients are bad news for us humans!
The good news is, a lot of the "bad" compounds found in natural foods can be neutralized with a few simple tricks. Just like the process of fermentation can turn lactose in milk into gut-healthy acids and probiotics (for more information, check out my instructions for making kefir), the process of sprouting can help convert the starches and "anti-nutrients" in plants and seeds into enzymes, vitamins and minerals that are easily absorbed.
THE PROCESS OF SPROUTING SEEDS, SIMPLIFIED
We've tried sprouting a few different seeds (almonds and miscellaneous dried beans), but our best, most consistent results have been with chickpeas, so that is a great place to start. The process is so simple anyone can do it. All you need is a bag of dried chickpeas, a pot, a colander and a lid that fits inside it, and some water.
The basic steps for sprouting seeds are, soak them in water for a set amount of time, then transfer them to a container that allows the water to drain while keeping the seeds nice and moist until they begin to sprout. Then (for things that require cooking), cook until tender and you have an extra-healthy version of a simple food that really IS a super food!
STEP-BY-STEP SPROUTED CHICKPEAS:
1. Pour bag of dried chickpeas into a colander and rinse well, then transfer to a large bowl or pot, cover with water and soak for 12 - 24 hours. Drain, rinse well (mixing chickpeas with hands) and refill with water every 4 - 6 hours when possible (of course if this includes an overnight soak, rinsing once before bed and once again in the morning is usually enough during the night).
Notes: When soaking, make sure water level is at least 1" above surface of chickpeas because those little guys will really soak it up. In drier climates, I find it's best to soak for the full 24 hours. Also, place the pot out of direct sunlight. You can cover it with a lid or a clean towel, or leave it uncovered for this step.
2. Transfer soaked chickpeas to a stainless steel colander, rinse well and cover with a lid that fits inside the colander and close to the top of the chickpeas. Rinse well with cold water (always tossing chickpeas with hands to redistribute them) every 2-4 hours when possible.
Note: There are 2 reasons for rinsing and replacing the water. The first is to keep the chickpeas moist to encourage sprouting. The second is to prevent mold from growing. Like with step 1, it's not necessary to get up in the night to do this, and it should be fine to let it go for a few hours during the day as well; I've found chickpeas to be pretty resilient, so if your schedule is limited, just rinse them when you can.
3. As soon as you see the little sprouts popping through, the chickpeas are ready to cook. I give them one final rinse and place them in a pot with water and a dash of salt and bring it to a boil. Once the water boils, lower the heat and simmer until the chickpeas reach the tenderness to your liking. Drain, rinse and serve or store in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days.
Note: I like my chickpeas a little al dente because I feel like it gives them a nuttier taste in salads, but that is a personal decision. Also, if you plan to add them to a cooked dish, like chili or soup, it's better to undercook them a little bit to prevent them from getting too soft when they are reheated later.
A FEW SERVING SUGGESTIONS
As a summer salad: Combine with chopped Vidalia onions and cucumbers, fresh cherry tomatoes, and feta cheese, then toss with olive oil and seasonings.
As a warm winter treat: Use chickpeas in place of any beans in your favorite chili recipe
As a healthy snack anytime: Dry well, then toss with olive oil and your favorite seasonings (like garlic powder, salt or curry powder) and roast in the oven until crispy.
THE SCIENCE, SIMPLIFIED
Mother nature has a way of protecting her children. Plants that are high in lectin and other digestion inhibiting agents have them because they are protective compounds- at least from the plant's point of view. The natural compounds that make seeds more difficult for animals to digest, help the plant to propagate. But once the sprouting process begins, the chemical composition of the seed changes. Starches are converted into fuel and enzymes and vitamins are released, all to help the growing seed thrive. What's great for the little sprout is great for us too!
Some health benefits of sprouting foods:
- It increases the level of available vitamins and minerals
- It eliminates most of the gas-producing starches
- It increases the protein content
- It shortens the cooking time
- It increases the level of living enzymes (enzymes help to break down the food and enhance the absorption of nutrients by the body)
A FEW TIPS
- If your chickpeas start to get a gray or green tinge, that's most likely mold. The batch probably sat a little too long between rinses, or the room temperature was a little too warm. Either way, you'll need to toss that batch, wash everything really well and start again. Remember, it's important to rinse fairly often.
- If at least some of your chickpeas don't begin sprouting after 36 hours in step 2, there's a problem. The chickpeas need to remain moist during the entire sprouting process so be sure to rinse often and keep a lid over the colander.
- I started out using bottled spring water for this process, but quickly realized that was overkill. I now use filtered water from my refrigerator for soaking (step 1) and cooking (step 3), and rinse with water straight from the tap (step 2). If you have water with a high chlorine level or hardness and you run into problems, you may want to switch to filtered water for your rinses.
TAKING LICENSE WITH THE LIVING FOOD CATEGORY
I may have taken a little bit of artistic license, grouping sprouted chickpeas into the living food category since that title is generally reserved for fermented foods (where "living" refers to the living organisms- healthy bacteria and yeast- that are found in them). While you can eat sprouted almonds raw, the sprouted chickpeas are cooked before eating so they are not actually living at the time of consumption. But they are definitely living during the sprouting process and super-healthy so I think they deserve a spot here.
I hope you enjoy the process and the benefits of this simple food transformation.
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