Every localvore knows the feeling that settles in around early spring: It's been five months since you agreed to eat food grown close to home, but your social conscience is only so patient. You find yourself sneaking guilty glances at the salad section of the grocery store.
The mesclun is still from California. But to succumb now — to purchase out-of-state roughage — would be unconscionable. Which makes you wonder: How do ethical eaters craft off-season meals that are both tasty and non-masochistic?
Consider sprouts, says Peter Burke, a tombstone salesman who runs an online sprouting business out of his Calais home. Since 2006, via the web, Daily Gardener has sold compost, trays and seeds to DIY sprouters in such distant locales as Ohio. Soil sprouting, Burke suggests, allows you to garden all winter long and eat it, too.
Sprouts aren't new, of course, but a classic health-food staple that never went out of style. City Market in Burlington offers eight varieties. Chester-based Gourmet Greens sells four kinds of soil-grown greens, plus sprouting kits, online and in local stores.
But Burke's Daily Gardener operation could be the quirkiest sprout biz this side of Petaluma.
On March 27, I arrived at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier for one of Burke's public sprouting workshops. It wasn't my first encounter with indoor greens. A former housemate had grown non-soil sprouts in mason jars and used them to supplement raw-foodist alchemy. For the past few years, I have purchased hydroponic alfalfa as an occasional hummus-sandwich supplement.
But Burke's soil sprouts, also known as micro greens, are different. Instead of sprouting in water, he spreads seeds from supply catalogues across trays full of potting soil, compost and kelp meal. After the seeds have germinated for four days in darkness, they begin soaking up sunlight. A week later, they're ready for munching.
That's a sweet deal, in more ways than one. A $170 Daily Gardener kit produces sprouts for $8 per pound, roughly the same price of City Market mesclun. Using homegrown compost, per-pound production expenses shrink to about $2, or a quarter the retail cost of California greens.
Besides, soil-grown sprouts are safe. Food-safety specialists have cited commercial hydroponic sprouts — alfalfa in particular — as potential carriers of salmonella. In 1995, for example, some Vermont College students were among 20,000 in North America who suffered ugly side effects from tainted batches. While there's no absolute guarantee that any seed is free of harmful bacteria, the soil-grown kind isn't subject to water-borne risks.
Oh, and they're good for you. A pound of Daily Gardener sprouts offers four times the protein of mesclun, Burke reports, plus extra Vitamin C. What's more, he adds, indoor greens promote positive feng shui.
"This would make for a good book," a woman in the audience said as we showered Annie's Naturals "Goddess" dressing over a salad of radish, broccoli, buckwheat, pea and sunflower sprouts.
"I've got one almost written," replied Burke, a jovial 57-year-old in jeans and shirt sleeves. He had pitched a how-to manual on indoor gardening to two publishing houses, but neither was interested.
I was. Burke's sprouts were satisfying my salad-starved taste buds with a fabulous crunch. Each variety tasted like the individual veggie from whence it derived. The radish had a spicy kick, for instance, and the earthy pea shoots tasted like summer afternoons.
The following week, Burke invited me to dinner in Calais. "It's a tan clapboard house," he explained over the phone. "You'll see my greens in the window."
No kidding. Trays of soil sprouts, which Burke sells to U-32 High School, crowded his mudroom. The living room crawled with sprawling buckwheat, or "mad scientist," sprouts. More trays of radish, sunflower, peas and broccoli varieties lived in his basement cabinets. Beside the woodstove. Above his exercise bike. And, of course, on the windowsills of the family kitchen, where Burke, his wife Deb and their two sons were preparing the mother of all sprout meals.
"That is a big sprout salad," Burke's older son Dave, 22, declared after his father had harvested a pound of the usual suspects and mixed them with chopped cucumbers, avocado, olives, tomatoes and red onions. "We are in sprout academy," joked Deb, who was preparing a soy-balsamic dressing by the sink. "Most of our friends," she told me, "know what they're getting into when they come over."
We feasted. As before, I noticed how each sprout exuded both crispness and personality. The salad, too, was perfectly suited to the cheap Chardonnay I had purchased at Hunger Mountain Co-op. After a main course of pasta and barbequed tempeh, Burke sautéed more sprouts with garlic and sweet, dehydrated tomatoes.
On my way out, I picked up a Daily Gardener kit, with sprout seeds, compost and trays, for my own sprout project. I thanked Burke, threw the box onto my passenger seat and motored back to Burlington.
I opened the kit in the kitchen of my messy one-bedroom abode. "Whether you live in an apartment or a country home," read the introductory materials, "you can grow your own greens and save money on groceries, too!"
Sounds easy enough, I thought.
My history of poor plant husbandry was a source of concern, however. In college, I had drowned a friend's plants while babysitting them over spring break. At the Seven Days office, my peace plant is protesting for more root space. The only greenery in my Burlington kitchen? The mold on my bread.
Not surprisingly, my indoor-gardening experiment was plagued by carelessness. First, I let the seeds germinate for a day and a half, instead of the recommended 6 to 12 hours. Then I forgot to remove the seedlings after the requisite four-day hibernation period — a goof that left them looking rather anemic. As the sprouts matured by my windowsill, I alternately over- or under-watered.
But soil sprouts, as someone at Hunger Mountain had remarked, are "very forgiving," and mine didn't punish me in the least. If some got leggy from sunlight deprivation, I decided, it wasn't a bad thing.
I started eating sprouts in simple salads. Before each meal, I would snip the stalks of five main sprout varieties, rinse, add onion, carrots, garlic or cheese and a balsamic dressing. At the office, no one noticed when I snuck homemade sprouts into a hummus wrap.
Once I had gotten cozy with my micro greens, I began butchering them with greater frequency. During an impromptu post-theater gathering, I tossed broccoli and buckwheat sprouts with orzo, olives and grated parmesan. Thus prepared, they offered hints of herbivorous ancestry, but without upstaging the orzo's salty character. Later that week, I brought a sprout-barley-ginger concoction to a potluck.
"How did you make this?" I was asked by incredulous vegans. "With what?"
Before long, sprouts found their way into all things edible. Sprouts, wheat berries and apples, dusted with curry powder and washed down with microbrew; sprout tempura in sake dipping sauce; sprout spring rolls with mint and cilantro; sprout-Emmentaler omelettes. At one Old North End birthday party, a friend fed her turtle a sprout as an hors d'oeuvre.
All that experimentation came at a price, though. After one Saturday dinner party, my kitchen was a disaster area: Trays and compost on the floor; sprout stumps on the counter; hulls littering the carpet. In two weeks, I had served, consumed and gifted roughly 6 pounds of homemade produce.
"It feels like we're sitting in a clear-cut forest," I observed.
Yes, sort of, said my friend. This must be how loggers feel, he suggested, except that the sprouts went into our bellies, as opposed to a paper mill.
His explanation cheered me, but only slightly. This wasn't a simple matter of nutrition or cost-benefit analysis. In other words, I missed my sprouts.
I called Peter Burke one evening for moral support. His Daily Gardener formula had worked beautifully in spite of my ineptitude, I reported. I had even pioneered some interesting sprout recipes.
"Sounds terrific!" Burke said. He had never dreamed of sprout spring rolls — until now.
"It was terrific, Peter," I said, "but I almost feel sad now that they're gone." Worse, the messy results of my experiment were on conspicuous display whenever guests visited my Burlington digs. What was Burke's strategy for coping with sprout loss?
"Unless you're a pranayama yogi who subsists on air," replied the daily gardener, you have to consume as part of the karmic cycle. Besides, he said, sprouting is just an indoor version of gardening, an activity in which the "circle of life" comes with the territory.
"Life force has to come from something," added Burke, who meditates regularly at a Calais ashram. "But next time, put all that stuff away so people won't see the leftover corpses."