Don’t throw the thinnings from your garden onto the compost pile. Instead, toss those tender, young greens into crisp, colorful salads and other dishes.
Every year, I thin my vegetables and herbs and toss the thinnings into salad. Little did I know that I’ve been on the cutting edge of gastronomy—the discovery of microgreens. These tender, young shoots of everything from arugula to tat-soi are appearing on the menus of high-end chefs from Boston to San Francisco, but the real discovery awaits the home gardener who can harvest the delicate shoots fresh from the garden. Microgreens are difficult to find, expensive to buy, and have a short shelf life—none of which affects the home gardener.
Microgreens’ beautiful textures, vibrant colors, and variety of flavors provide cooks with a new medium for creativity, and they are loaded with nutrients. The brilliant colors of beet tops, ‘Rainbow’ chard, and purple basil highlight monochromatic greens, grains, and meats. Frilly, ferny sprigs of dill, fennel, mizuna (a Japanese mustard), and shungiku (garland chrysanthemum) add texture; a judicious sprinkling of cress, mustard, or arugula punches up the flavor; while pea shoots and tat-soi add a mild-tasting, pleasant crunch.
Opinion as to what constitutes a microgreen varies significantly, depending on where you live and who’s doing the growing. Some people refer to them as sprouts, and some suppliers sell sprouts under the name microgreens. Markets in Vancouver and Seattle describe them as baby lettuce, and a San Francisco chef who published a recipe with microgreens on his website could offer no better description than “you get them in bags at the farmer’s market.”
To most people, however, microgreens are any vegetable or herb seedling with at least one set of edible true leaves. (Sprouts have only seed leaves.)
Some growers harvest all their microgreens at the same height, usually between 1 and 2 inches, but others harvest each plant at a different height. “You need to taste to determine when a plant is ready,” says grower and botanist Deone Sears of Colorado Springs, Colorado. “A pea shoot might be 4 to 6 inches, depending on the variety, before it develops two sets of true leaves, which is when ours have the best flavor.”
The trick to growing microgreens is to use plenty of seed. Bob Holmes of Heaven and Earth, a business that grows microgreens for chefs in New Albany, Indiana, packs forty to fifty daikon or broccoli seeds and a dozen sugar peas into a single cell in a standard seventy-two-cell seed tray. This strategy works well for anyone harvesting only the greens, but it spells trouble for gardeners who want to raise any of the plants to maturity.
An obvious solution is to space your regular vegetable and herb seeds according to the directions on the packets, then thickly sow additional seeds for microgreens between them. By the time the regular crops need the space, you will have harvested the microgreens.
A handful of fresh microgreens can make any food a work of art. Chef Marcus Guiliano of Walter’s Bistro in Colorado Springs, Colorado, stands pea shoots in crab cakes. Denver food writer and instructor Gigia Kolouch floats them on clear soups, and chef Brent Beavers of Sencha in Colorado Springs tucks them into sandwiches in place of lettuce.
Microgreens also add visual appeal to stir-fries; they should be mixed in after the dish is removed from the stove. Tossed into salads, soups and stews, as well as simply prepared vegetables, fish, and meat, microgreens provide a panoply of colors and textures.
Strong flavors such as those of arugula, fennel, cress, and mustard add body to bland foods such as grains and steamed vegetables, but their intensity can mask the subtleties of other dishes. Chef Kathy Cary of Lilly’s in Louisville, Kentucky, uses microgreens whenever she can get them, but she cautions that some varieties should be used sparingly or mixed with milder varieties because of their intensity.
Debbie Whittaker, a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion, demonstrates her healthy cooking style as the Herb Gourmet in Denver, Colorado.
Indian Rock Produce, 530 California Rd., Quakertown, PA 18951. (800) 882-0512.
Sun Grown Organic Distributors, 2325 Hollister St.,
San Diego, CA 92154. (619) 662-1780.
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