By Christina Hennessy/Hearst Connecticut Media
Alexandra “Lexi” Woodruff has been eating them for even longer than she has been cutting them, and on this morning, she is easily winning over a microgreen newbie.
“They make delicious, good and healthy salads,” says the Greenwich resident, as she carefully snips a small section of broccoli, arugula and kale shoots. Most of the time, Woodruff said it’s her mom who finds a place on the plate for these petite powerhouses. “I really love her cooking.”
It’s hard not to fall and fall hard for these teeny greens, which are a step above sprouts, but younger than their “baby” versions. Harvested at anywhere from 1 to 3 inches, they pack a nutritional punch that far belies their size. On this morning, the reaping is well underway at the Abilis greenhouse in Greenwich, which has been seeding, planting, harvesting, cutting and selling these specialty greens for the past several years under the name Glenville Greens.
Woodruff is one of about a dozen greenhouse assistants, all of whom are clients served by the nonprofit organization, which provides support and services for people with developmental disabilities. The crew helps to get broccoli, kale, cauliflower, amaranth, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, beets, radish, cabbage and other vegetables and herbs from seed to shoot to market. The greens, which are packaged in plastic containers, go for about $3 an ounce, with the more labor-intensive greens selling a bit higher.
Microgreens, which have been called vegetable confetti, are known for their mix of tastes, textures and colors. As early as the 1980s, they began appearing on menus on the West Coast. By the 1990s, they were gaining in popularity in fine dining restaurants. By the early 2000s, they were sprouting up in the beds of backyard gardeners. It’s only been in the last five years or so that people in Fairfield County began seeing them on menus. Used as a garnish, or sprinkled on soups or salads, they don’t carry the heft of their older selves, but several studies have shown they can have four to six times more nutrients (vitamins and carotenoids) than those found in the mature leaves. In some cases, such as radishes, that number jumps to 40 times the nutritional value.
In the case of Abilis’ greenhouse, microgreens have allowed the greenhouse crew to flourish, as well. Workers such as Greenwich residents Susie Figgie and Amie Slade talk about a connection to the greens that digs a bit deeper than just the tasks at hand. Both expressed delight at the ability to see such immediate growth and to feel a part of a larger cycle. The plants tend to grow quickly, anywhere from 10 to 14 days to harvest. This shorter cycle can breed more reward, with endless waves of seeding to harvest — an equation that is a boon for any farmer.
“I love the plants,” says Slade, who is unabashed in her affection for all things green. “It’s as if I am connected with them. Nature keeps this balance, so the microgreens grow, then they become food and then it is back to nature again.”
At Glenville Greens, greenhouse manager Chris Hadin likes to tinker with the color, taste, texture, appearance and nutritional value when it comes to the crop.
The operations have grown slowly and serve only a handful of restaurants, such as Rebeccas and Boxcar Cantina, caterers, such as Maison Prive, and home customers. Such a select clientele makes it easy to customize.
“Boxcar has asked me to keep it spicy,” he says, as he sorts a batch of cuttings into a plastic container. He devised a particularly fiery mix with arugula and curly cress, which is known as pepper grass. “It was like eating wasabi.”
With the exception of such a zesty mix, Hadin said the beauty of microgreens is that they often fail to carry the distinctive, and, for some, bitter taste of their older selves.
“Sometimes vegetables and herbs can taste a different way to different people. Like cilantro, they will say it tastes like soap. But I don’t ever find that is the case with microgreens,” he says.