Sprouts are the biggest bargain in vegetables today. With sprouting, you can bring fresh vegetables to your table daily, even during the coldest winters, at a fraction of the cost of buying fresh, canned or frozen produce.

When you sprout your own, you can be sure they're the freshest vegetables available. They're also untainted by poisons, full of vitamins and economical. A pound of seeds, beans or grains will produce eight to ten pounds of sprouts.

Almost everyone is familiar with the mung bean sprouts served in Chinese restaurants. The Chinese have been eating them for thousands of years, and we've known them for at least a few decades. And the thin crisp alfalfa sprouts that find their way into salads and sandwiches in health-food restaurants are becoming equally familiar.

But the world of sprouts has barely been explored. There are crunchy wheat and rye barries to bake into breads, and high protein chickpeas to add to salads. Oats, peas, beans and barley will grow. And so will most seeds that would grow into edible garden plants. Radish sprouts are spicy. Sunflower seeds are nutty and crisp.

In sprouting garden seed, though, avoid tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants, and other garden plants that produce edible fruits on plants that are never eaten. Make sure the seed you use isn't treated with chemicals that make it unfir as food.

Sprouts are a wonderful food -- as rich in vitamins B and E as the seeds, and much richer in vitamin C. And sprouting is so simple that a child could do it. In fact, the last time I wrote about sprouts, I received a letter from a fifth-grade class in the Midwest. They liked the article and the directions, and found the project so simple that they experimented with growing many kinds of sprouts. They learned about science, horticulture and nutrition, and got to do some good eating too.

The class wrote to ask where to look for different seeds. The dried legume departments of supermarkets offer simple sprout supplies, but health-food stores often carry a variety of seeds especially for sprouting and can usually provide pointers as well.

There are many methods of sprouting, and all of them include moisture, darkness and warmth. Most call for the seeds to be soaked overnight to hasten sprouting. No matter what the method, the sprouts have to be rinsed, or at least given fresh water, twice a day.

The simplest sprouter is a quart Mason jar with a screen or cheesecloth lid instead of the standard metal one. Put soaked seed into the jar, screw on the lid and screen, and you can rinse the sprouts without having to open the jar.

Keep sprouting jars in a warm place and rinse and drain regularly. Refrigerate soybeans while they're sprouting, though, because they'll ferment. And refrigerate other sprouts when they're ready to be eaten.

Taste and experiment to find out when your sprouts are best. Chickpea sprouts, for instance, are usually eaten when they're just half an inch long. Rye and wheat sprouts are eaten short, but alfalfa and mung beans are usually allowed to grow an inch or two.

As an alternative to jars, you can sprout seeds in glass pie-plates lined with moist paper towel, but it's not as easy. Or you can take an unglazed plant saucer, cover the bottom with soaked seed and sink it into a larger, glazed bowl, with water in the bottom and a lid on top. Change the water twice a day, and the seeds will absorb fresh water right through the clay.

There are sprouters on the market, too. They consist of three perforated dishes, stacked above a solid one. Seeds go into each layer, and water poured into the top rinses all the seeds and automatically drains off. A cover keeps things clean. It's a luxurious and easy way to sprout. but less sophisticated methods work as well.

Once you're sprouting, you can start dreaming up ways to use all those sprouts. They're tasty in salads, soups, sandwiches and stir-fried vegetables. Since they're so crisp and fresh, most people prefer them raw.

You can spend a cold winter trying out new vegetables -- sprouts of every sort -- in all kinds of dishes. And you can do it even if you live 20 miles from the nearest garden. You can have your own indoor garden, and right under your kitchen sink.

Good gardening.