(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.
Other chefs primarily choose them for their intense colors and appearance. “It’s just this bright confettilike display of gorgeous little baby greens,” Marino says.
Susannah Walker, executive chef at Chicago’s Mod restaurant, particularly likes the baby purple kohlrabi for its striking color.
Lolla rossa microgreens also are exceptionally pretty because of their curled edges and rib that is green in the middle and red on the outside, says Carrie Jordan, new market development manager for Babé Farms Inc., a supplier of baby and specialty greens in Santa Maria, Calif.
Because of their brilliant burgundy color, bull’s blood microgreens are one of the most popular greens offered by Pride of San Juan Inc., San Juan Bautista, Calif, says Joe Feldman, vice president of sales.
The popularity of particular baby greens and microgreens varies widely depending on the region and a chef’s previous influences, says The Chef’s Garden’s Jones. A restaurant in the South might use collard green, pea or corn shoot microgreens. In another area with German influence, the chef might lean toward microcabbage.
Leffler says he likes many of the baby greens and microgreens, but right now his favorite is microcelery because it has “such a delicate perfume to it, almost like jasmine in a tea.”
Marino says microarugula is probably the most popular among his customers. “It has a great peanut flavor with a nice balance of sweet, sour, tangy and tart.” He says the intense flavor of the microarugula is complemented by its lack of the fiberlike texture of the larger plant.
ENLIVEN YOUR MENU
Think beyond salads in your baby green and microgreen offerings. These tiny greens also can spruce up appetizers, side dishes and entrees.
In one of his dishes, Stein Eriksen Lodge’s Holmquist tosses microcelery with sautéed lobster and white wine. He sandwiches this mixture between two pieces of grilled Pacific swordfish and serves it with additional microcelery on top. In another of his dishes, he combines spicy microgreens and baked warm goat cheese in a phyllo crust with vanilla apple compote.
Leffler tops seared, sliced and fanned diver scallops with a mixture of tat soi and mizuna and serves it with miso dressing and a garnish of the same greens. In another dish, he serves butter-breaded lobster with roasted foie gras and microcelery with truffle soup.
He also serves a mixture of bull’s blood, fennel, tat soi and red beet top microgreens in a cornucopia-shaped cone. To do this, he bakes a sliced haromaki shell (Vietnamese spring roll wrapper) rolled in the shape of a cone and coated with herbs and toasted pumpkin seeds. He places the microgreens in the cone, garnishes with popcorn shoots and serves it with balsamic truffle dressing.
Fabrice Hardel, executive chef at Le Fontainebleau in The Westgate Hotel, San Diego, still enjoys the novelty of microgreens “I recently came from Europe, and we don’t have them there. So when I arrived in the United States, I was amazed,” he says.
He offers a petite crab salad with microchervil and creamy asparagus soup on his menu, as well as Pacific salmon topped with an orange and rosemary dressing and served over wilted spinach with orange slices, carrots, stir-fried snap peas and a mixture of young greens.
Rick Tramonto, executive chef/partner at Chicago’s Tru restaurant, says he uses microgreens as garnish on almost everything. For one of his dishes he serves a mixture of bright red microgreens tossed in citrus vinaigrette on roasted sea bass with ginger carrot broth. He also serves hamachi, tartar and caviar with micromizuna and chervil.
Mod restaurant’s Walker especially enjoys using baby greens and microgreens in vegetable dishes. “If we are using the main vegetable, I think it is really awesome to use different aspects of that flavor and that vegetable in the same dish,” she says. For instance, she uses tiny carrot tops in a dish that includes carrots and microfennel as a garnish in an item that includes fennel.
When using baby and microgreens in salads, experiment with different oils, citrus juices and vinaigrettes to bring out new dimensions of the greens. Holmquist says he especially uses citrus juices to bring out the sheen and tries to stay away from heavy vinaigrettes. He suggests cautioning the staff against overdressing baby greens — a common mistake made by those unaccustomed to working with them.
FIND THE BALANCE
Count the cost when ordering and using baby and microgreens, says Holmquist with Stein Eriksen Lodge. Because the greens are specialty items, cost is a consideration, shipping can be expensive and they have a short shelf life. So it’s a balance, he says. “Try to order as little as possible to keep the shipping under control, but make sure you have the freshest quality and don’t run out,” he says. Suppliers are sensitive to this and usually will ship in small quantities.
To maximize shelf life, maintain the proper temperature — 36 degrees, says Babé Farms’ Jordan. She warns that for every hour you leave them out of the refrigerator you lose one day of shelf life.
The Chef’s Garden’s Jones suggests ordering only what you can use in a few days and dividing that amount into smaller containers of a quarter-pound or less. “Just take out the portion that you will use that evening if you have a bigger case,” he says. “If you can maintain an even, steady temperature, you are going to have far better luck.”
You also need to be careful how long the greens sit on the plate before being served. “It’s not like a regular salad where you can just put it on the plate and let it sit,” says Le Fontainebleau’s Hardel. “They have to be served right away.”