By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(This feature appears in the current issue of Produce Business magazine.)
Micro greens and edible flowers are far from a “new” produce item. The baby seedlings and blooms have been consumed in one form or another since humans first farmed. They did not become a “thing” until upscale California restaurants started using them in the 1980s.
To the outside world, the itty bitty herbs and greens that are tweezed onto dinner plates as “vegetable confetti” seemed a little precious. However, chefs understood that these brightly colored, subtly flavored fresh produce items augmented the arsenal of ingredients at their disposal. And that was before anyone looked seriously into micro greens’ nutritional resume.
Now the category is a related array of crops including “petites” (which are bigger micro greens), shoots (or tendrils), micro vegetables and edible flowers. Some are delivered to retail and foodservice ready to use and others arrive ready to be “harvested” as needed.
Micro greens are not sprouts. The latter are germinated in water in low light long enough to grow roots, a stem and pale leaves, a process that has made sprouts susceptible to health safety issues in the past. Micro greens are planted in a sterile growing medium soil in sun or under lights until they have their first set of leaves.
Micro greens and its relatives are a hot culinary trend likely to influence diners’ produce shopping habits in the future. In a recent National Restaurant Association (NRA) survey, 51 percent of chefs predicted that micro vegetables/micro greens would will be a “hot trend” at eateries in 2016. Fully 63 percent of the chefs also indicated that uncommon herbs (such as lovage and chervil) would make an impact.
Since they are ready-to-eat and cooking optional, tiny greens are finding a home in foodservice atop hot, artisan Neapolitan pizzas, on grilled fish tacos and a range of dishes from tomato soup (topped with micro basil) to a roasted walnut tart (with micro chocolate mint.)
Small beginnings in Southern California
When David Sasuga opened Fresh Origins 21 years ago few knew what “micro greens” were except a few chefs. “When we started out we had maybe five varieties and now we have over 100,” said Sasuga, owner of San Marcos CA-based Fresh Origins, the largest supplier of microgreens and edible flowers in North America.
The tiny crops require a lot of infrastructure in the company’s nearly one million-square-foot facility.
“Microgreens are such a fast crop. Most grow in five to seven days. The challenge is to prevent them from becoming ‘leggy’ with long flavorless stems,” Sasuga said. Micro greens must be packaged and shipped quickly with environmental controls from farm to restaurant.
Much of the growth in the category has come from upscale restaurant chains that are more casual,” he said. Fresh Origins micro greens and flowers are served at the Capital Grille, Roy’s, Nobu, and at Darden restaurants including Seasons 52.
The right microgreen for the right job
Rosa Provoste, executive chef at Leonora in The Sebastian hotel in Vail CO, has mixed micro greens emotions. “Micro greens and edible flowers are expensive and easy to ruin. They are very sensitive to changes in temperature, light and humidity but I love them for the flavor and color that they add to a dish,” she said.
“I only like certain ones – not every microgreen goes with everything. I use micro cilantro in ceviches and tacos. I don’t use them in the Spanish dishes because they are too strong,” she said. Leonora’s Skuna Bay salmon comes with lentil ragout, Spanish blue cheese, cipollini onions and micro parsley.
Leonora’s tapas range from steamed mussels with speck, fennel and tomato-saffron broth to a potato omelet with caramelized onios and saffron aioli. “I take micro radish and toss it with chopped parsley and sprinkle it on all the tapas when they go out,” she said.
Provoste also uses micro thyme on chicken and mushroom dishes and her fall-apart braised short ribs are complemented by chipotle salsa, pickled red onions and micro cilantro.
Irvine CA-based Urban Produce started shipping certified organic produce in 2015 from its facility built around a patented high-density vertical growing unit inside a warehouse, according to Danielle Horton, Director of Marketing & Food Safety.
Grown indoors in a 5,600-suare-foot, 25-feet-tall space, plants move from seeding in the “substrate” through a serpentine conveyor belt and various light tunnels and watering stations until harvesting and shipping.
Each micro green from arugula to sunflower is grown separately and then added to various mixes such as Urban Produce’s organic Hot Mama’ Blend, Wasabi-Bok Choy Blend (popular with sushi bars), and Kale-fornia Blend used at juice bars which also order harvested wheatgrass packed in clamshells. “One clamshell equals about one ounce of wheatgrass juice,” Horton said.
Urban Produce varieties are distributed to supermarkets in California, Arizona and Nevada and foodservice operations. “Most of the restaurants are white tablecloth places but some blends go to large foodservice caterers,” she said. Horton noted Indian restaurants like using micro sorrel and bars muddling cilantro micro greens in beverages like the “Man Mosa,” a blend of beer and orange juice with a cilantro garnish.
“We can work with a chef to create a blend grown for them and put their name on the label,” she said.
Little greens, big nutritional impact
Micro greens growing reputation as a nutritional powerhouse have made some varieties a common ingredient in demand at health-focused cafes and juice bars along with retailers such as Whole Foods Markets.
A USDA Agricultural Research Service report published in 2014 noted that among 25 varieties of micro greens tested: “Red cabbage, cilantro, garnet amaranth, and green daikon radish had the highest concentrations of vitamin C, carotenoids, vitamin K, and vitamin E, respectively. In general, microgreens contained considerably higher levels of vitamins and carotenoids – about five times greater – than their mature plant counterparts, an indication that micro greens may be worth the trouble of delivering them fresh during their short lives.”
However, as the at USDA report noted, the growing, harvesting, shipping and storage of micro greens can have a considerable effect on their nutrient content.
While sprouts are naturally the main event at Rochester MA-based Jonathan’s Sprouts, shoots are emerging fast. “The No. 1 seller is pea shoots, followed by sunflower shoots,” said Liz Reilley, Vice President of Sales and Marketing.
One advantage to pea shoots is that they are one of the most hardy and least perishable microgreen and can last two weeks or more with refrigeration. “Shoots are really popular because you can cook with them and they won’t wilt. I saw a plate one chef did recently with wilted pea shoots instead of spinach as a bed underneath broiled halibut,” Reilley said.
‘Nothing is just a garnish’
At Chicago’s award-winning Blackbird restaurant, microgreens and edible flowers are often used but never indiscriminately. “It’s common to see microgreens just kind of thrown on the plate. Here, if it doesn’t have a purpose it doesn’t go on the plate. Nothing is just a garnish. When we use microgreens we don’t mess with them and add a lot of seasonings,” said Blackbird chef Ryan Pfeiffer.
The eatery’s foie gras dish avoids the almost inevitable sweet fruit or sauce accompaniment. “We use microgreens like anise hyssop, lemon balm and others to suggest sweetness. It’s a cleaner, less heavy approach,” he said.
Edible flowers also play a strong role on Blackbird’s menu. “We use a lot of actually edible flowers like chive blossoms. They add depth to the flavor. We grow a lot of our own, use local farms and order through distributors,” Pfeiffer said.
Camilo Peñalosa, Vice President for Business Development at Miami-based Infinite Herbs, differentiates between types of edible flowers. “Most are not eaten and are primarily used as a garnish. Other ones like lavender blossoms are put on tables at weddings so they smell nice,” he said.
Most of the micro greens and edible flowers served at the signature The Med restaurant overlooking the Pacific coast at the La Valencia hotel in La Jolla CA are sourced from Fresh Origins, said executive chef James Montejano.
“We mix varieties and use some on almost every dish at the restaurant. I serve grilled fish in dashi broth with micro cilantro and petite fines herbs for omelets,” he said. Among his favorites are micro mustard dijon, micro celery, micro fennel, micro ice plant, micro hearts on fire and micro sorrel.
MicroGirl to the rescue
On the opposite end of the volume scale is MicroGirl Organics in Dubuque, Iowa, owned and operated by its employee, Laura Klavitter.
“It started with a conversation with a chef in town about farming. I come from a community gardening background. He said that if I could grow microgreens he would buy them,” Klavitter said.
A whole lot of research later she was raising organic microgreens under lights in her basement in downtown Dubuque.
“Microgreens are cool because it’s one week from planting to harvest. It’s easy to try new ones. To me there’s nothing better than when a chef geek-out over my microgreens and find ways to use them,” she said.
Klavitter plants about a dozen varieties at a time including kales, pea tendrils, arugula and basil. The plants in their sterile growing medium are delivered to the restaurant and cut as needed.
“The low risk, low cost of entry is very appealing, especially for women who want to start a small business,” she said.
The chef who supported MicroGirl’s launch was Kevin Scharpf, owner of Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar down the street from Klavviter’s “farm” in Dubuque. Scharpf was recently named as one of FSR Magazine’s 40 Rising Stars under 40.
“This arrangement allows me to support a local business and I’m not paying for shipping from three state away,” Scharpf said. He quickly spread the word to other chefs.
The chef uses micro basil on coffee-braised beef short ribs with cauliflower “grit” and roasted carrots, and micro Thai basil with seafood. “Micro radishes have a nice stem that stands up to heat,” he said.
“I’m also a big fans of shoots, especially popcorn shoots. They have a pale yellow color. The stem is a little bit sweet and the leaves have just a hint of bitter.”
Defining the micro, the petite and the baby
In the produce and foodservice industries there is general agreement on what defines microgreens, shoots, tendrils, petites and micro vegetables, but the terms lack any legal definition. “The terms ‘baby greens’ and ‘micro greens’ are marketing terms used to describe their respective categories,” according to a 2014 report by the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Down the line these definitions may need to become more uniform for the category to grow.
Looking to the future, Camilo Peñalosa of Infinite Herbs expects the heavy packaging for herbs and microgreens to become more “green” and effective at keeping them in prime condition longer.
“It would also be good if the microgreens came in small sampler packs of individual microgreens, not pre-mixed,” he said.
At Urban Produce the goal is not to build a larger facility in Irvine CA. to supply micro greens. “The goal is to take our technology across the country to help provide access to fresh produce,” said Danielle Horton of Urban Produce. Their system works well in factories, a resource in plentiful supply, she said.
While micro greens won’t replace their full sized siblings, opportunities abound. “Even though the market for micro greens has grown it’s still a small, obscure category,” said David Sasuga of Fresh Origins, indicating lots of potential.
Microgreens may be obscure now but consider the kale’s makeover. “Ten years ago kale was mostly a garnish. Now it’s a superfood,” Horton said.
Chefs taking edible flowers beyond a pretty frill
Edible flowers have typically been found at white-tablecloth restaurants in the past and were a signal to diners that the dish is a premium item. Now new varieties and availability are expanding growers’ reach into more mainstream foodservice operations, bars and supermarkets.
Miami-based Infinite Herbs and Specialties puts major emphasis on growing and distributing diverse edible flowers from pansies to calendula, said Camilo Peñalosa, Vice President for Business Development. “About 40 percent of our business is retail and 60 percent is foodservice. In microgreens and edible flowers it’s almost entirely foodservice in high end dining but that is slowly changing,” he said, noting that nasturtiums are becoming a fairly common salad ingredient.
The blooms are also moving from being just a pretty garnish on the plate to actually being consumed including Infinite Herb’s squash blossoms. “Chefs tend to dust them with flour and fry them, or stuff them with crabmeat or caviar,” Peñalosa said.
San Marcos CA-based Fresh Origins which grows dozens of varieties including pansy, calendula, marigold, chrysanthemum, dahlia, nasturtium and viola. Many have concentrated flavors including garlic flowers and tart begonias.
“Our newest addition is hibiscus flower which we’ve developed to grow year round. Restaurants use them in beverages because they are so beautiful,” said owner David Sasuga.
Edible flowers also keep getting smaller such as Fresh Origins’ distinctive micro orchids. For sheer exhilaration, Sasuga likes the special effects of the buzz button. “It’s tart and it leaves your mouth tingling,” he said.
Rosa Provoste, executive chef at Leonora in The Sebastian hotel in Vail CO uses a variety of edible flowers including pansies, nasturtiums, pea blooms and marigolds. “I use fava bean blossoms in dishes that use the beans because they intensify the flavor,” she said
Flowers have also become much more common in hot and cold beverages. For instance, at Dubuque IA-based Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar executive chef Kevin Scharpf likes to float brightly hued edible flowers in summer cocktails.
Edible flower have a small presence in upscale and natural foods markets, usually in small clamshells in the fresh herb display. A larger marketing effort may woo mainstream shoppers but growers suggest that truly edible flowers, from chive blossoms to squash blossoms, are much more likely to connect with skilled home cooks.
Urban Produce: urbanproduce.com
Fresh Origins: freshorigins.com
Jonathan’s Sprouts: jonathanssprouts.com
Infinite Herbs: infiniteherbs.com
MicroGirl Organics: facebook.com/MicroGirl-Organics-1684296521785846
The Med: lavalencia.com
Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar: brazenopenkitchen.com
USDA micro greens study: agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2014/jan/greens
John Lehndorff is the co-creator of the American Salumi Poster: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1087297?__r=12984
Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM: http://news.kgnu.org/category/features/radio-nibbles/