Vail chef: ‘Everything is better with microgreens’
In the high country, springtime can be a tough season to grow plants. Warm sunny days followed by a frost the next morning tends to discourage whichever small sprouts have bravely managed to shoot up from the ground. However, there are ways to grow some greens this month that will be fresh to eat well before summertime. The answer to our spring season gardening woes is microgreens: tiny plants that don’t scrimp on taste.
GROWING AT HOME
Microgreens are the next stage for a plant after it sprouts. They’re basically what Muppet Babies was to the original Muppet variety show from the 1970s; not quite fully grown but still lots of fun. Most edible plants can be grown as microgreens, with some of the most common being things like spinach, kale, radish and alfalfa. Chris LaVenture, who has her own farm in Gypsum and is co-owner of Valley Fresh Organics, said any plant in the brassica group, like broccoli and cabbage, are not that difficult to grow as a microgreen. The first step is purchasing seeds used specifically to grow microgreens in order to avoid harmful bacteria.
“(You need to) make sure there’s not salmonella or other (bacteria) on the seeds,” LaVenture said. “They (the microgreen seeds) do have to be a different seed source than what you plant out in the garden.”
One of the best things about microgreens is that they are grown indoors, so no need to worry about your itty-bitty buds needing a coat for the cold or getting trampled by an adventurous animal. LaVenture suggests using smaller pots or containers to grow microgreens and use trays that have some drainage.
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“I have some sterile mats that I grow them on to keep the seed clean that makes it easy to harvest,” LaVenture said. “Washing them is kind of a pain because they’re so small. … I would grow them in a regular sprouter and then let them (grow) a little bit longer for home use.”
MINI-GREENS IN A MATTER OF WEEKS
If you want your microgreens to be a bit more macro, grow them in soil, which has more nutrients. You can also start your microgreens in jars like sprouts. Microgreens typically take 14 to 21 days to grow, which is about the time you’ll need to catch up on your Netflix queue now that the ski lifts are closed. LaVenture said as you’re watching your minuscule microgreens take root, make sure to rinse them everyday, keeping them in a humid environment so they don’t dry out and die.
“You don’t want them to sit in water either because they’ll rot,” LaVenture said. “You need to wash the water over them and dry them off.”
LaVenture said it’s not necessary to use a grow light. A bright, sunny window in your home will be enough to get your microgreens to greet you in just a few weeks.
DELICATE YET DELECTABLE
For many chefs, microgreens are their best-kept secret. Even though they don’t take up much room on the plate, their flavor content can take a dish from being just ho-hum to yum-yum. Rosa Provoste, executive chef at Leonora at The Sebastian hotel in Vail, said when adding microgreens as a garnish, a pluck of parsley or cilantro is all you need. One of the joys of microgreens is how soft and succulent the leaves are.
“You cannot eat raw thyme, (but) with micro thyme you can eat it in its entirety, which is just so nice and tender and flavorful,” Provoste said.
Provoste said there a few simple guidelines for using microgreens atop your culinary masterpiece. First, never cook microgreens; they’re meant to be eaten fresh. For Spanish and Italian dishes, Provoste likes to use micro basil and amaranth. When making a Mediterranean meal, the chef usually garnishes with micro basil, arugula and parsley. Micro cilantro is reserved for fish and seafood due to its stronger flavor. You could also try micro red veined or regular sorrel, which has a tart lemon flavor.
“Everything is better with microgreens,” Provoste said. “If I don’t have my microgreens, I go mad. … I don’t know what chefs did 50 years without migrogreens, really.”
Provoste said after cutting microgreens, wash and store them in small, dry containers with an airtight lid in the refrigerator. The best way to maintain freshness is by placing the microgreens on wet paper towels, which you must swap out everyday so they stay moist. The chef said this method will keep your homegrown microgreens crisp for about a week. Provoste’s philosophy is that a dish isn’t complete without topping it with at least a handful of microgreens. The purpose of these petite plants is not just to look pretty; they also serve to balance the other flavor profiles on the plate.
“(They) add color, flavor, they’re beautiful and tiny,” Provoste said. “(Microgreens) are very important I think. It’s not the same (without them).”
Microgreens may not look like much growing on your windowsill or adorned on what you ordered at a restaurant, but that’s probably because you haven’t tried them yet.