With microgreens, less is more.
Their big flavors intrigue chefs.
"California," wrote food historian Jonathan Leonard 30 years ago, "is the only place where truck drivers eat fresh salads without fear of being considered effete." Theories abound about why salads have always been popular in California, especially since, in most parts of the country, they were disdained by all but the affluent. Perhaps this open palate stems from the same adventurous spirit that drew people to the gold mines, or perhaps from the diverse mix of immigrants, many hailing from Asia and the Mediterranean, who settled here, bringing along a positive attitude toward vegetables in general. What we do know is that the Golden State's love of greens is not new. More than a century ago, a visitor to California dubbed it "the Land of Salads."
Two early inventions in the salad category—crab Louis and green goddess dressing—were the inspirations of San Francisco restaurants Solari's and the Palace Hotel, while Hollywood's Brown Derby takes credit for assembling the first cobb salad in 1926. The rest of the country seemed content with the ubiquitous, yawn-provoking chunk of iceberg, with opportunities for variety confined to the choice of dressing.
Meanwhile, Californians were busy discovering that there were many other salad greens out there and that they possessed a startling attribute: flavor. For California chefs and home cooks, the salad bowl became a culinary playground, tantalizing tumbles of bitter and tangy, of sweet, spicy, peppery. Beginning in the 1970s, words like arugula, mesclun, radicchio, and lamb's lettuce slipped into the language, and the insistence on fresh, local produce became a hallmark of California cuisine.
Restaurant and consumer demand profoundly changed the salad mix cultivated by California growers, big and small. The 150-mile-long Salinas Valley, known as "the Salad Bowl of the World," has supplied lettuce greens to the whole country since the 1920s. Sometime in the '80s, growers responded to the ever greening market by diversifying production on a large scale. Some of the first prewashed and bagged mixed baby greens came from the Salinas Valley in the mid-1980s.
According to Connie Quinlan, executive director of Monterey County Agriculture Education, this growing market resulted in gross sales of about $400 million in 2000, with the once-exotic radicchio, leaf lettuces, and spring mix all figuring among the valley's lucrative crops.
Considering this heritage, it's only natural that California would pioneer the latest trend in the food world—microgreens. These flavorful Lilliputian members of the greens community have been appearing with increasing frequency on today's restaurant menus. I called chef Thomas Keller to ask his opinion about these cute greens.
"Cute?" he stammered. "You know, that's, I mean, people who use the word 'cute' . . ." Keller was too exasperated to finish his sentence. I had just attempted to describe a lovely little cluster of microgreens, like the ones he uses at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. But I knew a good scolding when I heard one, even when it was only half unleashed. Turns out, Keller doesn't much care for the term microgreens either ("Sounds like you're in a lab"), although he has tremendous respect for those who grow the intensely flavored greens that have become the new thing for some of the country's most prominent chefs.
Microgreens are filament-thin, delicate plants, the smallest possible incarnation of salad greens, herbs, edible flowers, and leafy vegetables. As a careful reading of trendy menus reveals, micro is huge: Microfennel, microarugula, micro-spinach, microchrysanthemums, and others appear as garnishes, as toppings, or as explosive bursts of flavor.
Keller feels that microgreens offer chefs a lot of flexibility and range in putting together diverse flavor elements. He also likes their ability to provide a different dimensional look. Their impact resides in the realm of the senses: They are surprising, mind-bending, seductive. Definitely not "cute."
A few years ago, the only way to assure a steady supply was to grow them on the property, in the raised beds of the restaurant garden. Then one day about three years ago, Keller got a call from a man named Farmer Jones, whose 75-acre family farm in Huron, Ohio, is called Chef's Garden. When Lee Jones described the array of microgreens and vegetables he grows exclusively for chefs, he got a little scolding of his own.
"I got blasted with the California response," Jones recalls. In that garden of glorious produce, Keller asked, why would he be interested in anything from the banks of Lake Erie? Nevertheless, Keller accepted the offer to taste some of Jones's microgreens, after which he said, "OK, I get it. Let's get rolling."
At San Francisco's Campton Place, chef Manuel Rodriguez is effusive in describing the microgreens magic in the restaurant's lobster salad and seared scallop salad. Using various purveyors, the Five Diamond Campton Place has been something of a pioneer in the field of greens ever since it began to explore the possibilities of wild American cuisine, about a decade ago. The program was initiated under executive chef Todd Humphries, who is continuing his pursuit of the wild and wonderful at his recently opened restaurant, Martini House, in St. Helena. Micros, he explains, allow him to use the same ingredient in different stages of growth to play off and complement the main flavors while adding texture and taste.
Among Humphries's suppliers are Living Water Farms, White Crane Springs, and Forni Brown, which also produces microgreens for Domaine Chandon, Pinot Blanc, and the French Laundry, all in Napa Valley.
"We call ours 'Growing Greens,' " explains Forni's Barney Welsh. "We grow our microarugula, bulls blood beet greens, all our micros in long trays. We deliver the trays to restaurants as soon as the plant has a few leaves—the chefs tell us how many leaves there have to be." The chef then cuts what he or she needs from the living plants, so what the diner tastes is a vibrant bouquet of just-harvested flavor. All this hand tending and meticulous attention to detail do not come cheap. A typical 5- or 6-inch plastic container—called a clamshell—ranges from $12 to $26 plus shipping costs.
Most people will find microgreens only on restaurant menus, but home chefs for whom price is no object can order them from several distributors, including Pride of San Juan in San Juan Bautista and Galli Produce in San Jose. Melissas.com provides descriptions, uses, and recipes for the microgreens it distributes to restaurants.
On the other hand, these days you can even get microgreens at the movies, in a manner of speaking. At Foreign Cinema in San Francisco, where you can do dinner and a movie simultaneously, microgreens are a star attraction.
"They really pack a wallop," says chef Gayle Pirie. On the house-cured gravlax she sprinkles microcelery for flavor and texture. But she cautions, "You can't use too much of this one. It's too powerful."
"Spicy, nutty, earthy" is Pirie's description of the microarugula, which vies for her attention with micros like upland cress, amaranth, edible flower confetti, and the rainbow mix that garnishes halibut steak with Persian spices in saffron broth.
Asked why microgreens have attained such popularity, Pirie explains that people are really attracted to their punchy splashes of flavor and their almost-evanescent beauty. But she also looks at it from the chef's point of view. "We have to have something new," she admits. "It's for us."
As farmer Lee Jones puts it, "Chefs are the artists; we provide them with the paints."
Microgreens . . . take them or leaf them
Many chefs are now incorporating microgreens into a variety of dishes. Restaurants mentioned in the story: Foreign Cinema, San Francisco, (415) 648-7600; Campton Place, San Francisco, (415) 955-5555; the French Laundry, Yountville, (707) 944-2380; Martini House, St. Helena, (707) 963-2233.
These grower-distributors sell microgreens to consumers: Galli Produce, San Jose, (408) 436-6100; Pride of San Juan, San Juan Bautista, (831) 623-4130 ext. 104. For recipes: Melissas.com, (800) 588-0151.
Agricultural tours in the Salinas Valley: the Farm, (831) 455-2575; Ag Venture Tours, Monterey, (831) 643-9463, www.whps.com/agtours.
Other chefs are using microgreens, too. A sampling in San Francisco includes: Jim Moffat at 42 Degrees, (415) 777-5558, tosses them in a fennel salad with Meyer lemon and satsuma orange or on a warm arugula salad with salmon; Johnny Alamilla at Alma, (415) 401-8959, likes the popular bulls blood blend (beet greens) dressed with sherry vinaigrette; Ben de Vries at Andalu, (415) 621-2211, likes rainbow mix in ahi tuna tacos or microarugula on rabbit potpie; at One Market, (415) 777-5577, Adrian Hoffman mixes microbasil in a melted caprese salad or serves leek tart on salmon and a bed of micromustard greens; Jean Alberti at Kokkari, (415) 981-0983, features a lobster and shrimp cake topped with a mix of microgreens. In Larkspur, at Lark Creek Inn, (415) 924-7766, Jeremy Sewall likes to use the bulls blood beet green mix to garnish arctic char or puts microcilantro in an English pea soup.
Photography by France Ruffenach
This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.