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Spring Tang

Tiny microgreens offer loads of flavor


Published April 13, 2011 at 6:55 a.m.


The server silently and almost reverently sets down the dish, as if he knows how delectable it looks: Dollops of shimmering, rose-colored steak tartare nestle on fresh potato chips, garnished by shaved radish. Pimply cornichons and olive-green caper berries dot the plate. Sprinkled like fairy dust across the top are tiny green and red leaves — a filigree of radish, mustard and amaranth microgreens. Though minuscule, they have presence and beauty; they are the very essence of spring.

I order the dish by chance while stopping for a quick snack at the Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond. But the aesthetics of the plate that arrives from chef Steve Atkins’ kitchen are so startling that I have to admire it for a while before taking a single bite. Maybe it’s the appearance of über-fresh greens after so many months of snow. From the server, I learn that the dish and its microgreens have a backstory.

Chef Atkins serves his tartare in a single mound until late March, when microgreens from the Intervale’s Half Pint Farm begin to arrive and he changes its composition. “They’re pristine and look like they just came out of the ground. They’re gorgeous,” gushes Atkins. His tone is typical of how some local cooks feel about these baby plants.

Microgreens — the 1- to 2-inch shoots of mustard, arugula, cabbage or broccoli — have soared in popularity in recent years. Their leafy heads may be smaller than a fingernail, but every seedling packs a wallop of flavor. Some fans swear they’re also loaded with more vitamins than are their full-grown versions, but so far there’s little evidence that microgreens’ nutrients are any more concentrated. What they do offer is an early spring dose of carotenoids for sun-starved, winter-weary diners.

Not many local farms grow microgreens, even though they can fetch up to five times more per pound than mature greens. Perhaps it’s because the tiny plants are finicky and can wilt under slight changes in temperature or humidity. They like to be misted at least twice a day, and harvesting them — with scissors — is fussy work. But Mara and Spencer Welton have taken the risk at Half Pint Farm. The couple have been growing microgreens since launching their farm nine years ago. Both self-described foodies, the Weltons vowed to raise unusual and flavorful varietals that chefs and other cooks would appreciate, including artichokes, cipollini onions, squash blossoms and heirloom tomatoes. “This was a niche that wasn’t tapped in Vermont,” says Mara Welton. “I thought, Chefs should be using microgreens!

On a recent weekday, I find Welton at Half Pint helping to raise a hoop house that collapsed during a winter storm. She leads me into the nearby greenhouse, where the air is sultry. Fans whir noisily, and on either side of a long central aisle, wooden tables hold trays of seedlings for the farms that share the land here. Near the back, several tables offer up row after row of microgreens.

When Welton talks about the Lilliputian plants, she uses terms such as “beautiful” and “complex.” But she also calls them temperamental: Microgreens are difficult to grow en masse. They need a lot of light, low humidity and plenty of TLC. “But we’re the futzy farmers,” she says. “To me, it’s worth it to give people an incredible tasting experience.”

The Weltons begin planning their growing season in February and open their greenhouse around St. Patrick’s Day. Once the seeds are planted in composted soil and properly watered and tended, dots of green become visible in two to three days. They fully mature in two to three weeks. It’s a quick cash crop, especially in early spring when not much else is growing.

Half Pint’s first batch of microgreens is usually ready by the end of March, when Mara Welton cuts their stems with a pair of very sharp scissors. Today, she pulls a tuft of dark radish greens from their tray to demonstrate; a tangle of wee roots clench the almost black soil. “I’m always amazed by the aromas of each tray,” she says.

In the beginning the Weltons planted broccoli and red cabbage seeds. Gradually, they began to experiment with spicy Asian mustards, radish greens and deep-pink amaranth, each of which has its own hue, texture and taste. “We got good at hitting all levels of flavor,” says Welton.

Their first chef-customer was Aaron Josinsky, when he was cooking at the now-defunct Waiting Room in Burlington. Half Pint has picked up more restaurants, including L’Amante Ristorante and the Bluebird Tavern, and occasionally fills orders from caterers and other chefs. Healthy Living Natural Foods Market in South Burlington is the farm’s only wholesale account.

But some of Half Pint’s most eager customers await each spring at the Burlington Farmers Market, and they don’t blink at the steep price tag: $25 per pound. “We can’t not bring them to market. There would be a riot,” jokes Welton. Like many local farmers, the Weltons are planning for the first outdoor market on May 7.

The microgreens’ cost reflects the high overhead involved in growing them. “We use a ton of seed,” mostly from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Gardener’s Supply Company, says Welton.

She points out that each green seems to have a personality and a favorite time of year to flourish. Amaranth likes the cool of early spring and late fall, for instance, while the Weltons harness the heat of summer to grow microherbs such as basil. Welton calls radish greens “powerhouses,” and some of her brassicas “kick ass” in terms of flavor. “They have no bitterness — they just taste like toasted nuts,” she says.

Savoring individual microgreens on a plate reveals that they do indeed harbor remarkably strong and unique flavors. To me, the mustard tastes like — well, miniature mustard greens. But the amaranth is reminiscent of concentrated beets; the radish greens, tangy earth. A mixture is feathery on the palate, like a lace of grass, flowers and spice.

Microgreens are the only crop the Weltons will grow for the entire season. By the last harvest in November, they will have grown and harvested 600 pounds, much of it sold at the Burlington Farmers Market.

“Half Pint’s greens are not just another plastic container of microgreens. They’re a little more magical,” says the Kitchen Table’s Atkins, who uses some other micros on occasion during the winter. “They add a brightness to the plate that can round out a dish.”

And, in the long mud season, brightness on the plate and palate is definitely a boon.