The teensy leafy vegetables and herbs called microgreens are a great boon in early spring, when we all crave intensely fresh, immediate flavors. And they’re a terrific example of synchronicity between farmers and chefs.
In the United States, they first came on the scene twenty-some years ago, when the innovative farmer Lee Jones, of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, collaborated with late Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who was on the prowl for something more cutting-edge than the same-old specialty salad blend mesclun.
On the North Fork, we have the U.S. headquarters of Koppert Cress, based in the Netherlands and supplier of microgreens to European chefs since 1995. They opened their Cutchogue greenhouses in 2006 as a hub to provide restaurants in the Northeast — and now as far west as Denver — with fresh microgreens. In 2013, Koppert added a 52-acre farm in Riverhead.
At night, the 100,000-sq.-ft. glasshouse glows with energy-efficient, growth-promoting red LED lights, “like a gentlemen’s club!” joked general manager Nicolas Mazard.
“We look for ancient varieties and focus on flavor,” he added, as we washed our hands, donned hairnets, and squelched across a disinfectant mat into the bright, open space. It was filled with smoothly rolling low racks that held a vast checkerboard of tiny leaves of green and jewel-like reds and purples. He handed me a little sprig. “Take this cilantro—it’s not soapy in taste.”
He was right — this had distinctive notes of ginger and especially citrus, like the cilantro I’d eaten across south India.
More revelations followed: Micro rock chives tasted like roasted garlic and onion; an Aztec cress, like tangerine; ruby-hued micro beet greens were earthy; micro mustard had the clear pungency of Dijon.
“Nasturtium is like my wife, sweet and spicy,” Mazard said with a grin. He’s traveled the world looking for new varieties to cultivate, but finds himself especially intrigued by what many Americans would consider backyard weeds. “I’m a French dude that’s fascinated by native plants from the U.S.,” he observed.
The marketing term “microgreens” refers to a phase in a plant’s growth cycle. A sprout, the earliest stage of a plant’s life, is the stem and rootlet of a seed that’s been germinated in a moist, closed environment under low light, and is harvested before the leaves emerge. A microgreen, which is the second stage of a plant’s development, requires a growing medium (Koppert uses natural fiber) and sunlight. Microgreens are allowed to grow a bit taller than sprouts, until the cotyledons (embryonic leaves) have fully developed or the first true leaves have started to emerge. (If the still-juvenile plants continue to grow a while longer, then they’re called “baby greens.”)
Microgreens have long been thought to be extremely nutritious, but it wasn’t until 2012 that a study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry supported the theory. After examining nutrients such as vitamins C, E and K as well as the carotenoids beta-carotene and lutein in 25 microgreens, including arugula, basil, celery, cilantro and red cabbage, researchers concluded that microgreens, depending on the type, contained from 4 to 40 more nutrients than the fully mature versions. Their findings were so surprising, in fact, that they checked them several times.
One of the newest players in the local microgreens game is Savannah Calderale, who recently was awarded a one-acre plot in Southold by the Peconic Land Trust’s Farms for the Future Initiative.
The program encourages both new and established growers who have an emphasis on food production and who are looking to begin or expand their farming operations. “I’ll start putting up the hoop houses in March,” she said. “In addition to microgreens, I’ll be growing edible flowers and other garnishes for chefs and maybe a pop-up farm stand.”
“I chose garnishes and microgreens for a number of reasons. I feel like the market for regular food crops is already flooded with product, even in the organic sector of farms out east,” Calderale added. “I hope that my focus on garnishes will help me break into the farm scene without stepping on anyone’s toes. I also just love growing things that are predominately used to decorate and celebrate food.”
My aspirations take place on a far smaller scale, one that’s about the size of a kitchen windowsill. Growing microgreens at home is really very simple: You can start with one or two types of seed — broccoli, cabbage, mustard and sunflower are a few of the easiest-to-grow varieties — in single containers and mix them after cutting.
Or you can opt for a microgreen seed mix that combines varieties with similar growth rates, compatible flavors and beautiful coloring, including reds, purples and greens. You can find these mixes at the Long Island Cauliflower Association in Riverhead, and the Agways in Riverhead and Southold; two excellent online sources are Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, and High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vt.
You’ll want to follow the planting directions on the seed packets, but, in general, begin with a warm, sunny spot (microgreens need about four hours of direct sunlight a day to flourish) and a small, clean container. Plastic take-out containers and disposable pie tins work well, as you can easily poke a few drainage holes in the bottom.
Depending on the variety, the seeds-to-harvest time is two to three weeks. You’ll know it’s time when the first set of “true leaves” appear. Then pick up your scissors and snip the greens just above the soil line. If you keep several trays going at once and sow seeds every week or so, you’ll have a continuous supply at the ready.
Like any raw vegetable, microgreens should be rinsed well before eating. Their delicacy and high water content preclude cooking, so use them to augment salads of more robust (i.e., fiber-rich) mature greens. They add punch to sandwiches, and an artful tangle of them adds interest and verve to practically anything, from soups and omelets to an after-school snack of carrots and hummus.