Picture a full garden’s worth of flavors: sweet corn, beets, sweet peas, arugula, fresh basil and even crisp green apples.
Now picture all of those varieties tiny enough to be pressed together in your fingertips.
This is happening right now on the North Fork, where Koppert Cress USA of Cutchogue is producing microgreens. Each one is packed full of fresh flavor and boasts more nutrition than varieties grown full size.
Nicolas Mazard, director of sales and marketing for Koppert Cress USA, which also operates in more than a dozen European countries, came to Cutchogue from France in October 2006, hoping to grow a demand for the greens here.
To some, microgreens may simply be little green sprigs that beautify a soup or salad, but to the curious chef, they are the key to balancing flavor and texture in even the most delicate dish.
“It’s about depth of flavor,” Mr. Mazard said as he held a two-week-old, four-inch-tall bundle of sweet corn in his hand. “It’s about what’s inside.”
The European company rooted itself in Cutchogue in 2007, taking over a 30,000-square-foot North Road greenhouse, where Koppert Cress USA officially took shape.
In just seven years it’s seen a surge in demand, expanding to open another greenhouse on Sound Avenue in Riverhead in 2012, where it grows specialty varieties — including edible flowers and cacti.
The microgreen flavors are of ancient varieties, some dating back to the Aztec era, and the company brings tastes from around the globe to its North Fork facilities.
“Foraging around the world, that’s what we do,” Mr. Mazard said.
Koppert Cress grows 50 different varieties of edible plants and vegetables, each growing to just a few inches before being packed up and sent to restaurants nationwide.
Some of those plants don’t have to travel far, being used at local eateries like Southold’s North Fork Table & Inn, the Jedediah Hawkins Inn of Jamesport and Tweeds Restaurant & Buffalo Bar in downtown Riverhead.
“They brought us some samples about six months ago, and when the chef tasted them he loved them,” said Tweeds owner Ed Tuccio, who added that they use microgreens in soups and salads and even serve them with their trademark buffalo. “We’ve been using them every day. They complement the meals and really add a special feature to the plate.”
Because Koppert Cress products are grown in a greenhouse and are kept in-house for only a few short weeks, most varieties can be grown year-round.
“It’s actually easier to grow in the winter, because we can control the environment,” said Kevin Dichtl, one of the company’s seed experts.
Perhaps the most unique thing about the Koppert Cress growing operation is that there’s no soil to be found. Instead, seeds are placed on fiber, and grow there as they would in soil.
The Cutchogue facility plants about 200 pounds of seed per week, first washing and soaking them to remove any bacteria and support germination, then drying them before they are planted on the fiber. Depending on the variety, the seeds commonly grow into stalks about two inches high.
Some of the stronger microgreens flavors, which Mr. Mazard calls “living condiments,” include garlic, licorice, wasabi and Dijon mustard.
But perhaps more important than flavor is the added nutrients they provide.
According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers from the University of Maryland found certain microgreens had up to four times the nutrients compared with a same-size sampling of their larger counterparts.
“Mother nature loads up the babies with nutrients,” Mr. Mazard said. “It’s like a rubber band. Nutrients are stretched as [a vegetable] grows larger.”