Microgreens go big in the kitchen

This orange and cucumber salad with shrimp is adapted from a recipe by celebrity chef Melissa d’Arabian.
This orange and cucumber salad with shrimp is adapted from a recipe by celebrity chef Melissa d’Arabian. The Associated Press

Jeff Anderson doesn’t have to go far to get his favorite microgreens. They’re growing on his counter.

“They don’t need much, just daily water,” he said. “They’re under a window so they get enough natural light.”

Safeway’s executive chef has grown microgreens for many years for his use at home. He credits his mother with teaching him how to grow sprouts in a jar when he was a teenager. That progressed to growing countertop microgreens.

“What do you think chia pets were but microgreens?” he said. “It’s the same concept. Now, people eat them.”

What is a microgreen? It’s an itty bitty seedling, harvested when under 2 inches tall. That’s usually less than two weeks after planting. The seedlings are snipped just above soil level. Almost any edible plant – vegetables, herbs, even flowers – can be grown as a microgreen.

Treated like “vegetable confetti” by food pros, microgreens add something extra to any meal. Like alfalfa sprouts in the 1970s, microgreens have replaced lettuce on sandwiches or become an alternative green in salads.

Mixologists love how microgreens add flavor notes and visual interest to herbal cocktails. For example, sprouted mint can sub for full-sized mint in a mojito.

Anderson is among many professional chefs who have big fun with microgreens.

“I love it for the flavor, love it for the freshness and knowing that I grew it,” he said.

He adds them to salads, soups and entrees as a favorite garnish or extra burst of fresh flavor. Microgreens contribute a little extra taste and visual pizzazz to standard fare.

“You can garnish lamb chops with freshly sprouted mint,” he said. “Mint, basil, cilantro microgreens – they’re all delicious. Use them as a garnish on meat and fish.”

Not the same as sprouts, microgreens are prized for their tiny, pungent leaves and have been embraced by millennials. Carol Stein

Chefs aren’t the only ones into microgreens. Millennials have embraced these mini-veggies and herbs in a big way. Recent research shows millennials, ages 18 to 34, are seriously into healthy eating, sustainability and knowing their food’s source. Microgreens fit that lifestyle. Like Anderson, many millennials grow their own microgreens, too.

Millions of home cooks have seen microgreens on the Food Network, said David Sasuga, founder of Fresh Origins, the nation’s largest microgreen grower, and think: “ ‘Why do they look so amazing on a plate?’ Visually, microgreens are much more appealing than just chopped radish,” Sasuga said.

Microgreens are easy to like. Unlike a butter-laden sauce or gravy, microgreens add flavor with very few calories and help elevate home cooking to restaurant-like appearance and taste. They’re a garnish that’s supposed to be eaten, not just seen.

“I just grab a handful and snip them off as I need them,” Anderson said. “Or I can snip a bunch and make a pesto with a little olive oil. They’re so simple to grow. They’re always fresh. They cycle through in just five to eight days.”

Anderson grows such microgreens as baby arugula, red mustard, kale and sunflower sprouts to add to meals in many ways.

“I love salads in a jar, and microgreens are an easy addition,” he said. “(Layer in a mason jar) a mixture of greens, organic chickpeas, fresh lemon juice, a little olive oil, cut-up tomatoes and microgreens. That’s a really healthy jar.”

It’s also portable for work lunches or picnics. With the lid on the jar, shake just before serving.

Many chefs prefer to buy their micros in bulk.

“We harvest and ship a few tons every day, six days a week,” said Sasuga.

Sasuga is a microgreens pioneer, starting production 21 years ago. It all began with basil seedlings.

His 10-acre San Marcos farm in north San Diego County used to grow marigolds, petunias and other annual flowers for retail nurseries. He also started tomato and herb seedlings for other growers.

“I always wanted to grow something that people could eat,” Sasuga recalled.

One day, a chef asked him to grow some heirloom tomato seedlings for his restaurant’s kitchen garden. When the chef came to pick up the tomato plants, he spied some basil seedlings at the farm.

“Basil seedlings are really interesting,” Sasuga said. “They don’t look like mature basil. (The chef) was amazed by them and wanted us to grow them for him. I said, ‘Why would you want that? It’s so small!’ But that’s how we got started.”

Now, Fresh Origins grows hundreds of varieties of microgreens, from amaranth to wasabi.

“People love basil and cilantro,” Sasuga said. “Kale, broccoli and cabbage are all very popular. I like the baby arugula; it’s so pungent and flavorful. The micro Bulls Blood beets are very dark and pretty; they don’t look anything like a beet, but their flavor is distinctly beet and earthy. Rainbow chard adds beauty to any plate.”

One common veggie is rarely used as a microgreen, Sasuga said. “We grow very little lettuce; that’s a common misconception that microgreens are baby lettuce. But (lettuce) is too bland.”

The company primarily sells to produce distributors for restaurant use.

“That allows us to reach a lot more restaurants,” Sasuga said. “In Sacramento, Produce Express has done an awesome job with our products. We actually sell more outside California than in California.”

Sasuga continually adds new micros for more experimentation.

“I like the unusual,” he said. “We introduced a micro seagrass that grows in estuaries along the seashore. It has a nice savory flavor with a touch of saltiness. Our micro mustard Dijon is really unusual. It has a distinct Dijon flavor.”

Some micros keep diners (or drinkers) guessing. Fresh Origins’ Tangerine Lace, actually the seedling stage of common marigolds, has become a popular addition to mixed drinks. With a frilly green flourish, it adds a citrus note and accents citrus-flavored vodka.

Fresh Origins’ inventory of microgreens keeps growing as more chefs discover the flavor profiles of these baby seedlings.

“Chefs these days are so creative,” Sasuga said. “They’re always looking for an edge, new combinations of flavors and ideas. We try to come up with plants that they may have never thought of as microgreens.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Orange and cucumber layered salad with shrimp

Makes 2 servings

Food Healthy Orange and Cucumber Salad
This orange and cucumber salad with shrimp is adapted from a recipe by celebrity chef Melissa d’Arabian. Melissa d’Arabian The Associated Press

Oranges make a great base for a spring salad before tomato season arrives. This recipe was adapted from celebrity chef and author Melissa d’Arabian.

1 medium naval or cara cara orange (or grapefruit), peeled, sliced, membrane and seeds removed

1 medium blood red orange, peeled, sliced, membrane and seeds removed

1/2 English cucumber, thinly sliced

1/4 medium avocado, sliced

1/4 fennel bulb, core removed, thinly sliced

1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 cup baby arugula, watercress or other favorite microgreens

6 ounces steamed shrimp

1 tablespoon toasted pumpkin seeds (or other nut or seed)

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or orange juice

2 teaspoons high-quality extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Optional: chopped fennel fronds or more microgreens for garnish

Note: To mellow the red onion flavor, shock the red onion slices by placing for 10 seconds in ice cold water, and then blotting dry.

Layer the orange slices and cucumber on a platter. Top with the avocado slices, fennel slices, microgreens, shrimp and pumpkin seeds. Squeeze the lemon or orange juice over the whole salad, and then drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and fennel fronds or microgreens, if using. Serve.

Tangerine twist

Makes 1 serving

Micro Tangerine Lace™ with tangerine
Micro Tangerine Lace – actually a baby marigold – gives tang and tangerine flavor to this tangerine twist cocktail. Courtesy of Fresh Origins

This cocktail, created with Fresh Origins’ Tangerine Lace microgreen (actually a baby marigold), serves as a template for other creative, herb-infused mixed drinks. Experiment with different microgreens such as sprouted mint or basil.

1 handful of Fresh Origins Micro Tangerine Lace

1/2 lime, squeezed

2 ounces orange- or tangerine-flavored vodka

1 1/2 ounces triple sec

3 ounces sweet and sour mix

Sugar or simple syrup to taste

1 cup of ice

Add lime and Micro Tangerine Lace to a shaker and muddle. Add the remaining ingredients and shake. Pour into a Collins glass and garnish with lime wedge and Micro Tangerine Lace. Toss in a straw and serve.

Persimmon cinnamon smoothie

Makes 1 drink

Cinnamon basil microgreens add another dimension of flavor to this persimmon-cinnamon smoothie. Courtesy of Fresh Origins

In this recipe from Fresh Origins, a spiked smoothie gets an extra note of flavor from baby cinnamon basil. (It’s also good without the alcohol.)

Fresh Origins petite cinnamon basil

1 Fuyu persimmon (sliced – save one wedge for garnish)

1 cinnamon stick (garnish)

3 candied pecans (garnish)

1 tablespoon peanut butter

2 ounces brandy

2 ounces milk

3 ounces ice

Place all ingredients except garnishes in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into a glass. Garnish with petite cinnamon basil, cinnamon stick, candied pecans and persimmon wedge.

Beet volcano

Each “volcano” serves 2

Why not have fun with your food? This recipe, adapted from Fresh Origins, doubles as a conversation piece.

Bulls Blood beet microgreens

1/2 cup soft goat cheese

2 large beets

4 leaves red endive

1/2 cup roasted walnuts

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Steam beets until soft. Peel and cut into thin round slices. Stand beet slices up and overlap them to create a volcano shape. Fill center with goat cheese and roasted walnuts, saving out some of each. Plate endive spears. Add reserved cheese and walnuts to outside of volcano. Mix olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper; pour over top. Garnish the top of the volcano with Bull’s Blood beet microgreens to resemble flames. Serve immediately.

Beef and prawn udon soup

Makes 2 to 3 servings

Micro Asian Mix™ with Kobe Beef Udon Soup
Micro Asian Mix, a specialty microgreen from Fresh Origins, both garnishes and flavors this beef and prawn udon soup. Courtesy of Fresh Origins

Asian microgreens look pretty and taste delicious. They also can sub for full-size veggies in Asian dishes, such as this udon soup. Microgreens don’t need much (if any) cooking; add to soups last or as a garnish. This recipe is adapted from Fresh Origins.

Handful of Asian mix microgreens

1/2 pound large fresh uncooked prawns

1/2 pound well-marbled beef such as rib-eye or New York steak

1 package udon noodles

2 stalks of green onions

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 onion, diced

3 pak choy leaf stalks

Handful of enoki mushrooms

1 cup chicken broth

Splash of hot sauce

2 tablespoon soy sauce

Handful of shiitake mushrooms, chopped

2 tablespoons dried seaweed

1 tablespoon rice wine

Handful of soybeans

Salt and pepper to taste

In a pot, bring water to a boil, drop in noodles and simmer until cooked. In a separate pot, combine chicken stock, garlic, onions, hot sauce, shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, seaweed, rice wine, soybeans, salt and pepper and simmer. Slice beef into small thin slices, season with salt and pepper, and sear quickly on both sides in olive oil in a pan. Set aside. Season shrimp with salt and pepper and sear quickly on both sides in olive oil. Set aside. Cook enoki mushrooms in broth. Blanch pak choy quickly in broth until leaves are wilted. Set aside. Transfer noodles to individual bowls, add broth, pak choy, green onions, shrimp and beef. Top with microgreens. Serve immediately.

Microgreen pesto

Makes about 1 cup

Interest by a chef in basil seedlings got Fresh Origins into the microgreens business. The San Marcos farm is now the nation’s biggest grower of microgreens. Martha Irvine Associated Press file

Try this pesto with basil or mint seedlings (of course), but this method works with a wide range of micros. Another plus: It can be frozen for later use.

1 cup microgreens such as micro basil or mint or a combination

1 clove garlic

2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnuts

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, combine microgreens, garlic, nuts and 2 tablespoons oil. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Add remaining oil and process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer pesto to a large bowl; mix in grated cheese. Serve.

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