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Micro Mania: Tiny, Trendy, Tasty E-mail
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Sunday, 14 January 2007
Micro Mania: Tiny, Trendy, Tasty



Fort Worth Star-Telegram

By Amy Culbertson

Tiny, trendy, tasty: Microgreens from two North Texas greenhouses prove that what's good for the chef is good for the grower.

If you've dined out lately at any place fancier than Chili's, you've probably seen them on your plate: itty-bitty miniature green leaves, scattered over your salad or bunched atop an appetizer like a tiny posy.

They look adorable, especially the ones with the red and purple tints, but they're not there just for decoration. When you bite into them, you get a tiny crunch and a little burst of flavor -- spicy, nutty, pungent, herbal.

They're microgreens, and they're popping up on trendy restaurant plates all over the Metroplex: micro-basil and cilantro, arugula and mustard, kale and cabbage, beets and broccoli, Asian greens like tat soi and bok choy, vivid red amaranth, even micro-celery.

They're also popping up -- literally -- in greenhouses around Fort Worth.

If you ask chefs whether they buy their microgreens locally, two names are likely to be mentioned: Genes Greens in Keller and La Casa Verde outside Weatherford.

The two operations could hardly be more different, in growing methods, equipment and scope. But both are evidence that the kind of restaurant-grower partnerships that helped spark the organic movement and nurture small producers in California are finally beginning to take hold in North Texas.

Steward of the land

"Organic" is a given for Geno Stille (pronounced "still"), who's in his second growing year at his greenhouse down the road from the Buddhist temple in far-suburban Keller. He grew up in Northern California, in Yolo County, where organic farming is now a $14 million industry.

In line with his Christian faith -- he tithes 20 percent to missionary programs -- he is deeply committed to sustainable growing and being "a good steward of the land."

After 24 years in his family's California grocery business -- the upscale Nugget Market chain -- Stille sold his stock back to the family, earned a viticulture degree and developed a vineyard. His Stille Family Vineyard, in California's Carneros region, won accolades for its wine, but two years ago he pulled up stakes again and moved to the Fort Worth area "to be closer to my in-laws." His wife, Kelly Stille, is now teaching psychology at her alma mater, Texas Christian University.

Stille knew there was a market for microgreens in the Metroplex because a friend who was growing the micros in the Bay Area was shipping them here. So he built a greenhouse, bought equipment and developed a growing system that incorporates his secret weapon: earthworm castings.

Stille believes so wholeheartedly in the power of this natural plant food -- "castings will hold 300 times their volume in water," he declares -- that he's partners with a friend in Florida who sells the castings nationally.

Son Kristopher, 27, moved here from California in March to work with his dad at the greenhouse, the "global headquarters," as the state-of-the-art Web site puts it, of Genes Greens.

Between them, Kristopher notes, they've had experience in every aspect of produce, "from seed to stomach." Now, their diminutive crops include arugula, red cabbage, red mustard, tat soi, kohlrabi, bok choy, Bull's Blood and Early Wonder beet greens, red radish and broccoli greens, experimental plantings of micro-celery, and, in cooler months, amaranth.


Under computerized shade curtains that open and close depending on the cloud cover, Geno Stille's spacious greenhouse shelters wide tables bearing orderly rows of soil-filled trays.

Some hold mounds of dark worm castings that employee Salvador Huizar is leveling gently and smoothly with a trowel. Some hold almost-invisible seeds; some bear germinating stems with tiny pinpricks of leaves; some have become dense mini-mats of green, or purple-green, or red-green, about an inch and a half tall.

In summer, it takes just five days for most of the Stilles' microgreens to grow from planting to harvest; the radish greens take only three. The day we are there, Kristopher Stille is harvesting several varieties of greens for the company's Rainbow Mix, wielding bright-orange rechargeable clippers.

A delicate stubble of translucent stems is left behind, and these will be dumped along with the soil into a pulverizing machine, which will grind the stems and roots into the mixture -- "green manure" -- Geno Stille calls it.

Thus enriched, the soil is dumped into a machine that fills the trays, to be carried back to the greenhouse tables and replanted. Every 30 or so growing cycles -- the Stilles monitor the taste of the greens to determine when it's time to fortify the soil again -- more worm castings are added.

Meanwhile, the harvested leaves will be chilled, washed and prepared for shipment inside the Stilles' prep room.

Because of the care they take in handling, the Stilles say, they can offer their customers not only flavorful microgreens but ones that have a shelf life of up to two weeks -- a very long time in the microgreen business. Before packaging, they taste each crop. Any whose flavor doesn't measure up are dumped; those that pass are weighed out into plastic clamshell containers.

These will be picked up by refrigerated trucks from Hardie's Fruit and Vegetable Co., a Dallas distributor that supplies upscale restaurants. Among the tables they might end up on are those at Lonesome Dove, Duce and the City Club of Fort Worth; J.R.'s Steakhouse in Colleyville; and, in the Dallas area, Roy's, Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House, Gil's Elegant Catering, Sevy's Grill, Texas Stadium and American Airlines Center.

Some will be sold to retail customers, at Central Market and Sprouts Farmers Market stores.

Soon, Stille says, they'll be shipped to Houston. Chicago and Washington, D.C., are on the horizon, and "we're getting ready to tap into the New York market." He's gearing up to go to the next level, installing a walk-in cooler; waiting for new automated growing tables to arrive from Holland and working with a Texas company to bring in recyclable packaging, so that his "whole operation will be green."

Going local

Meanwhile, on the other side of Weatherford, Michael Butchard isn't planning any out-of-state shipments anytime soon. He makes his deliveries in his white van, accompanied by his chocolate Labs, Madison and Zoe.

Butchard, too, is proud of the growing system he has developed over the three years he has been raising microgreens. In two greenhouses tucked away behind scrub oak, mesquite and cedar off U.S. 281 just past the Palo Pinto county line, microgreens are a growing part of his business, La Casa Verde, along with herbs, watercress, lettuces and tomatoes.

He has recently expanded the greenhouse space where he grows his red sprouting cabbage, Osaka purple mustard, red Russian kale, red amaranth and Red Ace beet greens. Most of the chefs he supplies have standing orders, and he expects to begin selling to a Dallas wholesaler soon.

His greens go to Bonnell's, Bistro Louise, Cafe Modern, St.-Emilion and Piranha Killer Sushi in Fort Worth; Cacharel in Arlington; 62 Main and J.R.'s in Colleyville; and the Greenhouse Spa in Grand Prairie.

Butchard (pronounced "boot-CHARD") is a hydroponic grower who has constructed an ingenious 24-hour-water-flow system for his microgreens. He sows the seeds on inch-thick polyester batting that he buys in bulk rolls and cuts into 6-by-9-inch squares.

The squares are fitted into waist-high plywood troughs through which water flows in a gravity system, spilling at one end into a galvanized-metal livestock water trough to be pumped back to the other end.

With a background in plumbing, construction and industrial maintenance, "I built everything out here by myself," Butchard says proudly. In winter, he warms the water with a propane-fueled heater he constructed from a turkey fryer.

Though his growing method can't be called organic because of the nutrients he adds to the water, he says he uses organic pest controls.

Part of the reason microgreens appeal to chefs and foodies "is the novelty of the tiny plant," Butchard figures, adding that "the mixture of the colors make a very pretty plate."

The other part of the equation is the microgreens' intense flavors, says Butchard, who particularly delights in the wasabilike bite of his Osaka purple mustard.

"It's not something innocuous on the side of the plate like curly parsley," he says.

'Perfect little leaf'

"The neat thing about microgreens is that, pretty much, you get the full herb flavor in a beautiful presentation," says chef Kevin Maxey.

Maxey, chef de cuisine of Craft, the new hot-ticket import from the Big Apple in Dallas' W hotel, likes the fact that "it's a perfect little leaf you don't have to dice or chop."

He employs the bitty greens as a garnish or additional flavor element -- "as an accent, not so much as an ingredient."

He uses micro-basil to garnish his heirloom tomato salad and his duck ham appetizer, along with cantaloupe cubes and droplets of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar.

He likes adding microgreens for another layer of flavor in a dish that already incorporates the grown-up ingredient, topping cured hamachi (yellowtail), for example, with pickled celery and micro-celery greens. Maxey warns that microgreens should be used quickly; "they're very perishable, and it's important to take care of them." He refrigerates them with a moist paper towel on top; "you have to keep them covered or they'll dry out."

Chef Claudine Martyn, cooking-school manager at Fort Worth's Central Market, stores hers in the vegetable drawer of the fridge in the plastic container they're sold in; "the little towelette on the bottom keeps them moist."

She has used microgreens in sushi, spring rolls, salads, tuna tartare -- "anything raw."

"They're fantastic in sandwich wraps," she says, "and perfect on hamburgers, veggie burgers, avocado sandwiches."

Back in Keller at Genes Greens, Geno Stille gets excited when he talks about how microgreens can turn an ordinary dish into a gourmet one.

He likes to sprinkle micro-arugula over a pizza just before serving, top a turkey burger with a bunch of micro-mustard, scatter bok choy greens over salmon or rack of lamb or strew arugula and mustard atop a grilled steak. The hotter greens, he thinks, work well in fish tacos.

In his immaculate greenhouse, Stille offers tastes of his microgreens as he would have conducted a wine-tasting at his California vineyard, starting with the radish -- sharp, crisp, fresh and supremely radish-y -- and moving on through the nutty, spicy arugula to the red mustard, with its intense horseradish bite. His eyes widen as he bites into the tiny mustard leaves.

"See how the flavors build?" he says. "Through sustainable agriculture, we're trying to reproduce flavors that have been lost."

Last Updated ( Sunday, 14 January 2007 )
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