(Aug. 5) Miniature romaine, tiny cabbage, minute celery, petite spinach — 10 years ago you would have offered only the full-size counterparts of these items regularly on the plates of diners. But during the past few years, baby greens and microgreens have become popular menu enhancements.
The term baby greens commonly is used to describe lettuces and other greens harvested when they are 2 to 3 inches tall or at the point the plant first develops the head or root that regularly is eaten. Microgreens are even smaller, harvested when the plants are as tiny as a half inch. Some growers even differentiate the stages of the infant plants further. Most notably, Lee Jones, co-owner of The Chef’s Garden Inc., Huron, Ohio, identifies four specific stages in an infant plant’s development before the baby stage: cotyledon, micro, petite and ultra.
EXPLORE THE NUANCES
Despite their small size, baby and microgreens have a huge flavor, says Mark Marino, farm manager for Natural Selection Foods LLC, San Juan Bautista, Calif. “Every time someone has a chance to experience some type of a meal with baby and microgreens, they are usually just blown away,” he says.
You can take advantage of the strong flavors of baby and microgreens in everything from salads to entrees, says Zane Holmquist, executive chef at Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City, Utah. “Some are very true flavors,” he explains. “When you taste the microcelery, it just has this bright celery taste. Others, like the microarugula, have a very big, spicy flavor, but you might not know it is arugula. Another one of my favorites … is the bull’s blood (microgreen). It just has this really nice earthy, beet flavor. It tastes like you just ate a mouthful of beets.”
You also can use baby greens and microgreens to add a new dimension to a dish or to balance other flavors or textures. “When I design food, I design it to have a certain yin and yang to it. … If it is something sweet, I want to add something a little bitter. If it is something crispy, I like something that adds a little softness,” says Walter Leffler, executive chef at The Dining Room in the Hilton Short Hills, Short Hills, N.J. He says using baby greens and microgreens is a great way to do this. “It’s different than having a whole mouthful of crispy lettuce,” he says. “It’s very delicate from a texture standpoint in your mouth.”
You even can specify what particular texture you want when you order the greens from some suppliers. Jones says The Chef’s Garden alters the texture of the plants by growing them closer together for a softer texture or further apart for more body. The texture also can be affected by whether the plant is grown in a greenhouse or in a cold frame.