Micro greens and sprouts, those immature vegetables short on size but large on taste, are making their way from trendy restaurants and stylish markets into family kitchens.
The assorted seedlings add flavour, colour and crunch when included with sandwich and salad toppings, used as a garnish, or mixed into soups, dressings, casseroles, dips, sautes, pizzas and breads, among other things.
Sprouts and micro greens are similar, yet different.
Sprouts are harvested younger than micro greens and can be grown without soil in closed surroundings like bags or jars under sprays of lukewarm water. They should be harvested before their secondary leaves emerge. Alfalfa, sunflower, cress, lentil and buckwheat seeds grow quickly into sprouts and can be served up roots and all.
Micro greens are the adolescent versions of the leafy greens, edible flowers and herbs that are popular salad fixings. They are at their nutritional and flavourful best when they begin to display adult-size leaves. Seeds can be planted in potting soils, sprinkled onto sponges or fine-textured fabrics, and then misted, sprayed or watered as necessary. Among the most popular micro greens are cauliflower, peas, cabbage, arugula, radishes, beets, clover, mustard and alfalfa.
"Basically, the difference between the two is the size of the root and the time to (reach) harvest," said Steve Meyerowitz, a lecturer and author from Great Barrington, Mass., who has written several books on the subject. "You can grow sprouts in one to two weeks. But it takes about 30 days to maturity for micro greens."
Micro green farming is a little messier than dealing with sprouts - a little harder on the kitchen because of the soils involved, Meyerowitz said. "But you can do it wherever you have houseplants. Micro greens are houseplants you can eat."
Micro greens and sprouts are easy to raise, quick to evolve, pack a nutritional wallop and convey an intense taste - especially when eaten fresh. "They lose some of that (flavour) concentration when cooked," Meyerowitz said.
When the first leaf appears, these plants are at the peak of their nutritional concentration.
They also are economical to grow because they deliver large yields.
"One pound of alfalfa seed, for example, produces 10, 14 pounds of fresh 'mini-salad' greens," Meyerowitz said.
It doesn't take much space to grow micro greens and sprouts. They can be cultivated in the smallest of apartments, and in the densest of cities.
"Because they're not going to be grown to flowers or fruiting, they don't need as much light," said Robert Hochmuth, an extension agent with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "You're only germinating them to the first leaf. That can be done in a windowsill, a porch or anywhere you can grab a little indirect sunlight."
If you're trying to grow a blend of micro greens or sprouts, remember that different plants grow at different rates.
"Carrots grow slowly; radishes grow quickly," Hochmuth said. "You have to gain some experience in how fast these crops go from seed to harvest. Some are ready in eight to 10 days but others may take as long as three weeks."
Individual tastes vary, of course, but then so do the flavours in the many kinds of mini salad greens cultivated in kitchen gardens.
Beet tops often are described as having an earthy flavour, while emerging radish leaves are spicy. Micro cress has an aftertaste ranging from pleasant to pungent. Micro cabbage is mild while sunflowers are nutty. Clover shoots vary from spicy to sweet, while cauliflower is peppery. Baby basil is lemony while sprouting chard tastes like spinach. Miniature kale is subtly sweet.
"Take something like a carrot. The first leaf comes open and you put that in your mouth and it tastes exactly like a carrot. There are some surprises out there in how distinct these flavours are even at the leaf stage," said Hochmuth.
Flavours also change as the plant grows, he said.
"As the leaves open, they begin to manufacture energy from the sun. That gives them a change in flavour. The most intense flavour comes when that first leaf opens. It's up to the person doing the eating, of course, to determine whether that's good or bad, too sharp or too mild."
There are kitchen gardens - the French potager model, for instance, with its many decorative vegetables - and then there are gardens in the kitchen.
"I don't have the kind of garden I used to, or as much space, but I can do micro greens," said Susan Jellinek, horticulturist for Thompson & Morgan Seedsmen, in Jackson, N.J. "If I go away for the weekend, I just put a lid over them and they don't dry out. They're small scale and make sense for a single person or a couple. They're immediate and practical. Most are ready in a week or so and you can grow them in winter."
On the Net:
For more about micro greens, see this University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences release: http://news.ufl.edu/2008/05/14/designer-salads/
You can contact Dean Fosdick at deanfosdick(at)netscape.net.